BIG Funding/Research News for the Foster/Baker Lab

A major grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis was announced. As part of this remarkable $8 million award headed by Kevin Laland and Tobias Uller, $850,000 comes to our lab for research on the role of genomic/phenotypic plasticity in the adaptive radiation of threespine stickleback. A very exciting time for us, not only for the funding but also for the wonderful collaborators involved in the project. http://www.clarku.edu/articles/clark-university-biologist-co-lead-87-million-grant-evolutionary-biology

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Melissa Graham Receives ASN Grant

Melissa learned she has been awarded one of 10 American Society of Naturalists student research awards. A really remarkable accomplishment. Congratulations!

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Gaby is Next to the Defense!

Gaby successfully defended her masters thesis on macroinvertebrates in Massachusetts streams. She will return to a position in her home Ecuador and we will miss her very much. Best of luck, Gaby!

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Briana Joins the Ranks of “Defended!”

Briana defended her masters thesis exploring the effects of maternal stress upon fry behavior in stickleback and is heading for a conservation internship in Minnesota. Well done!

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Miguel and Becca Theses Defenses

Miguel successfully defended his PhD dissertation, and Becca her masters. Big congratulations to both!

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Rich King on the Defense

Rich successfully defended his PhD dissertation with great success- a very exciting event!

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Onto Chapter Two!

Miguel’s second dissertation chapter, presented at the Stickleback Conference earlier in the year, is accepted for publication in Evolutionary Ecology Research. Go Miguel!

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Chapter One Accepted!

Miguel just learned that the his first dissertation chapter has been accepted by the journal Ecology of Freshwater Fish. Congratulations Miguel!

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Beginnings of Miguel’s Defense

Miguel travels to the SICB meeting in Portland Oregon where he presents a paper on his dissertation research.

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Principal Investigators attend Workshop at The Center for Open Science

John and Susan travel to a workshop on “Improving Inference in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology” in Charlottesville, Virginia at The Center for Open Science. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, this was a very exciting workshop that could help to improve the quality of scientific publication.

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Foster/Baker Lab presents at International Stickleback Conference

The 8th International Conference on Stickleback Behavior and Evolution concludes at Stony Brook New York. John presented a plenary address in honor of Bob Wootton, Susan and Miguel gave spoken presentations and posters were presented by Ryan, Sade, Max, and Mitchell. A very excellent meeting!

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Wrap up from the ABS Meeting

The Animal Behavior meeting ends following successful presentation of four posters, and substantial field work in Alaska. Now for the infinitely pleasurable red-eyes!

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To Alaska, We Go!

The British Columbia Field contingent, including John Baker, Richard King, Kendall Lunn, and Max Nyquist depart to make many, many crosses and explore some new sites. On May 31, John, Kendall and Max will continue north to Alaska, with others joining them before the meeting. May the crosses go well!

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Laura Defends Her Thesis

Laura successfully defended her masters thesis on the effect of tannins on stickleback embryo and juvenile development. Congratulations Laura!

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Graham’s Thesis Defense!

Graham Hegeman successfully defended his masters thesis on the life history of the fourspine stickleback. Very excellent! He is now heading off for the St. John’s Upper School in Houston Texas where he will teach biology. Congratulations Graham!

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A Great Day!

Melissa Graham received the very prestigious George W. Barlow research grant from the Animal Behavior Society and Sade McFadden received a Charles H. Turner award, also from ABS, covering her costs to present a poster at the annual meeting in Anchorage Alaska. Congratulations both!

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We’re Back!!!

Spring semester’s greeting from our lab to yours!  Hannah Reich and Nick Pagan here, back from our study abroad and not-so-abroad experiences.  Now that we’re back, what better way to celebrate than to pick through the preserved macroinvertebrates we collected last summer!  As we sift through stream muck with dentist-like tools and the same white plastic spoons we used months ago, the pungent smell of formalin and black coffee re-centers us in the lab. We are sorting through our samples, picking apart macroinvertebrates from stream muck, and will eventually identify every macroinvertebrate in our hundreds of jars.

I (Hannah) had a fantastic study abroad experience with the School for Field Studies (SFS) in the Turks and Caicos Islands.  I lived on the itty-bitty island of South Caicos, a not-so-developed rock that I am proud to call home.  While abroad, I took courses in tropical marine ecology, resource management, environmental policy and did a directed research project.  For my directed research project, I used coral watch methods (www.coralwatch.org) to examine the extent and severity of coral bleaching on South Caicos reefs.  This project entailed lots of scuba diving, transects, and examining corals, but without getting too close to them!   While examining each coral, I used a coral watch color reference card to determine the lightest and darkest points on the coral.  Though I miss scuba diving for school, I’m excited to return to the streams this spring and summer!

I (Nick) spent last semester at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Cape Cod on their Semester in Environmental Science program. I lived on a much more developed spit of land than Hannah, filled with beaches, bike trails, cafes and scientists. I spent the first half of the semester learning about ecosystem biogeochemistry and a variety of useful new lab techniques. As early fall transitioned into pre-winter, I started on my 6 week project, in which I studied macroinvertebrate community structure in streams affected by conventional and organic cranberry cultivation. To study this, I used many of the same methods that I am using for my macroinvertebrate study, such as surber sampling, picking and identification, as well as new methods like stable isotope analysis and nutrient analysis. I spent so much of my time processing invertebrate samples that I earned the nickname, “Bug Picker” from our beloved lab TA, Rich. You can see a video of my final talk at: http://videocenter.mbl.edu/videos/video/513/in/channel/19/  . Just like Hannah, I am eager to get back to my work in the Baker lab. I have a lot more macroinvertebrate picking to do!

Until next time, we’ll be processing samples and getting ready to get back out in the streams!

Best,

Hannah and Nick

Hannah Diving in Turks and Caicos Nick at SES

 

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Investigating Human-Induced Evolution: Is a shift in ecotype associated with greater variability?

After spending the past three weeks in various solutions (some rather toxic), sixty of the fish that we collected in Alaska this summer have undergone somewhat of a radical transformation

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image (1) IMAG2271IMAG2366 (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These fish, chosen from two different lakes and age groups (lakes Lynne and Willow; ages one and two years), now have red bone, blue cartilage, and clear muscle and skin tissue, which will hopefully facilitate the measurement of several of their trophic traits.

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The population of interest here is the Lynne one, which in recent years has increased in average body size and shifted its feeding behavior to resemble that of the benthic ecotype (e.g. the Willow Lake population). Because we suspect that the increase in body size is a phenotypically plastic response to an increase in productivity of the lake (a change not previously experienced), it would thus follow that trophic traits useful for feeding at large sizes have been hidden from natural selection in this population starting thousands of years ago around the time the lake was colonized. Hence, by measuring the trophic traits of individuals from each of these populations, we can infer how trophic morphology and feeding at a large body size (benthic feeding in this case) have evolved under relaxed selection. We expect that since trophic traits in the Lynne population have been selected only at smaller body sizes for thousands of years (meaning that benthic trophic traits have only recently been exposed to selection, as opposed to thousands of years in Willow Lake), there will be higher variability of traits among the individuals of this previously behaviorally-limnetic population.
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Now that the clearing and staining process is complete, I look forward to learning about stickleback morphology in greater detail and the techniques to go about measuring the traits of interest at the Wund Lab at TCNJ.  I imagine this will involve taking pictures of the specimens under the dissecting scope similar to the one on the left, except for of much better quality!

 

 

 

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My babies’ hearts are beating!

 

IMAG1969 (2)Although I partook in the fertilization of hundreds (thousands?) of eggs while in Alaska, I did not get the opportunity to follow their growth closely. As part of a new project regarding potential plasticity of pelvic spine growth, I have started making crosses in an attempt to understand whether the increased number of individuals observed to have spines in lab grown versus wild fish of the Jean population is due mainly to genetics or if plasticity is also playing a role.

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This time around, I have been an involved parent every step of the way;  from choosing good looking parents for my kids – extracting their dad’s testes and sometimes preserving them for later use, massaging their mom for her eggs (gently of course, as I am looking forward to her next clutch!) – to taking care of them daily. Well, by taking care of them I mostly mean switching the embryo medium in their petri dish, which may take about a minute, but still…

Although only four days have passed since the fertilization of my first two clutches, it has been wonderful to watch the embryos develop under the scope. Only about two hours after pipetting the macerated testes onto the eggs freshly squeezed from the female, the formation of what I later learned is called the blastodermic cap confirmed that fertilization had been a success for most of the eggs!

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Unattractive stickle baby. Where did I go wrong?

Unattractive stickle baby. Where did I go wrong?

 

 

 

 

Today, while removing more unattractive eggs than I would have liked, I was incredulous to notice movement in one of the petri dishes and realized that some of my kids’ hearts have begun to beat! While my stickle babies would probably not be too happy with me if they realized what I did to their dads, I feel oddly warm and fuzzy towards them, as they are probably the closest I will ever get to parenthood (besides my dog Fabio of course!). I am so excited to watch them hatch!

 

 

 

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The Trouble with Mussels Is…

Audrey Seiz drying and super gluing a tag to the mussel.

Audrey Seiz drying and super gluing a tag to the mussel.

The freshwater pearl mussel has a unique life cycle that includes female mussels ingesting sperm from the surrounding water to fertilize their eggs. Once the eggs are fertilized the female is considered gravid, or pregnant. The fertilized eggs (glochidia) are then held on the gills for around 30 days to develop before they are released into the water. Part of my study of the freshwater mussel Margaritifera margartifera involves first collecting and tagging 50 mussels and second checking and tracking their gravidity.

 

Nick Pagan securing the tag on the mussel, and Hannah Reich writing tag number on the data sheet.

Nick Pagan securing the tag on the mussel, and Hannah Reich writing the tag number on the data sheet.

The first part of this process went quite smoothly. I collected 50 individuals from a site in the East Branch Swift River in Petersham, MA with the help of Hannah Reich and Nick Pagan. We then created a mussel tagging assembly line, and everyone had their prescribed jobs. I dried a portion of the mussel shell, added a small drop of super glue to the shell, placed a small, yellow, plastic tag on the glue and passed the mussel to Nick. Nick then held down the tag on the shell for around a minute with tweezers and positioned the mussel for a photograph. Finally, Hannah photographed the mussel with the tag so I could measure each mussel from the photograph and wrote down the tag number on a data sheet.

 

Special pliers created to open mussels.

Special pliers created to open mussels.

The second part of this process proved to be more challenging. In order to determine if a mussel is gravid you have to open the mussel and examine the gills for a creamy colored mass. Now I thought that a mussel no longer than your middle finger would be easy to open and study. However after my first encounter a year ago trying in vain to pry open a mussel with my fingers, I realized that these organisms were surprisingly strong. While I was in Germany working with Professor Jürgen Geist and his team of students and technicians I learned that they developed a special tool to combat the unbelievable strength of these mussels. The tool was reverse pliers (meaning that you had to squeeze the pliers to close them) with two extremely thin stainless steel plates welded to the plier tips. These stainless steel plates had to be thin so that they could slide between the two halves of the mussel shell and pry it open. The first time I went to the stream in Massachusetts to check gravidity; however, I only brought normal pliers, assuming for some reason that these could open my tagged mussels. I quickly learned that I needed to create the magical tool I saw in Germany because I could not open a single mussel with normal pliers. After a short meeting with Joel Norton, Clark University’s machinist, he was able to create the pliers, and I am now opening and examining the mussels with easy.  Sadly none of the mussel I have seen are gravid but I will just have to wait and see!

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Unionoid Treasure Hunt

For the last few weeks, the stream team has gone mussel crazy. We have been, for the most part, contributing to Hannah’s project of obtaining DNA samples from freshwater pearl mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) all over the drainage of the east branch of the Swift River. This local stream (about an hour north of Worcester) holds a large, healthy population of this globally imperiled invertebrate. The project may turn out to be especially interesting from a conservation standpoint because of the fact that several human-made dams fragment the stream, likely stunting gene flow through the population.

The first step to gathering DNA samples is finding Mussels. The relative ease of this process ranges from the lucky find of twenty under one rock to an excruciating hour of no mussels. Although on some of these hot days we would love to dunk our heads right in the stream to find mussels (which Hannah actually does regularly with a mask and snorkel) we generally use viewing buckets to see clearly into the water. These excellent tools are crafted out of paint buckets with the bottoms replaced with Plexiglas. For hours every day, we crawl through the stream, bent all the way over, with our heads firmly stuck in buckets. To the average hiker peeking through the trees at the stream that must be a very strange sight!

Me walking through the stream with a bucket of mussels.

Me: walking through the stream with a bucket of mussels.

Once we have found 20-25 mussels, we select 10 to be sampled. To do so, we open the mussels’ shells slightly with the tip of a pipette and extract a piece of tissue from the mantle about the size of a pencil tip. These “clips” are stored in Ethanol in small vials for future analysis. The mussels are then photographed against a ruler and released.

Clipped, measured and photographed.

One Margaritifera margaritifera clipped, measured and photographed.

It’s hard to stay focused for too long when we are working in such a beautiful place. Late July is the beginning of New England’s blueberry season, so the forest’s sunny patches are covered with little blue temptations. Hannah won’t let me eat any berries until she has cell phone reception and the number for poison control on her phone… Maybe she’s the smarter of us.  Sometimes when Hannah is taking notes at a site, and Gaby and I are left to sit, the combination the soft sun filtering through the hemlocks and the soft woodsy breeze is a stronger sleeping serum than anything else I can imagine.  The forest is obviously the best place to be!

Here's Gaby overtaken by the spell of the forest.

 Gaby is overtaken by the spell of the forest.

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Pictures of sticklebabies!

Fry feeding on brine shrimp

Fry feeding on brine shrimp

Now that the feeding performance tests are over, our “sticklebabies” are moving on to bigger and better things. Miguel has taken a good chunk of the fry for his research and has started them on a special diet, each family receiving a specific amount of brine shrimp a day. The other fry will likely be used for other experiments and some populations (Lynne and Willow) have already been moved from their jars and into tanks in the fish room.

Sticklebaby under the microscop

Sticklebaby under the microscope

While doing the feeding tests, I was able to take some really great pictures of the fry under the microscope (I used my fancy smart-phone). I was surprised to see how good they turned out!

I only have a few more weeks left at Clark and while that isn’t necessarily enough time to perform my own research, I’ve decided to learn more about Kendall’s research. I’ve been looking over papers and posters on life-history traits of threespine stickleback and learning about how certain factors affect egg mass and clutch size in females of reproductive age. I really enjoy learning about the various research projects going on in the Foster-Baker lab and it’s even more rewarding being able to work with the other students in the lab and help out wherever help is needed.

Stickleback after feeding, look at the full belly!

Stickleback after feeding, look at the full belly!

Living in Worcester has also been a neat adventure. It’s always fun (and a little scary) to live in a new place, if even for a short amount of time, but I’ve enjoyed “the woo” and all its quirks. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that Worcester isn’t as far from nature as I thought it was, and I’ve been able to do some birding and hiking on the weekends with a friend from Wheaton. About 3 more weeks left to go! Let’s see how much more stickle-knowledge I can acquire before my time here is over!

Actual size of full-bellied sticklebaby

Actual size of full-bellied sticklebaby

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Last day of testing!

Today marks the last day of feeding performance tests for the Alaskan fry! As of today, the 9 stickleback populations have each been tested 3 times. The last group that we received back in early June, consisting of the Willow, Lynne, and South Rolly populations, were the subjects of our feeding tests today. The embryos were sent from Alaska on June 10, and we got them here at Clark promptly on June 11. From there, we separated them into petri dishes of about 35 embryos each, and anxiously awaited their hatching. They hatched on June 17 (give or take a day or two, as they all didn’t hatch on exactly the same day), and began feeding on June 20. On June 22, we did the first feeding tests, in which 5 fry randomly selected from 5 fish families were observed eating brine shrimp for two consecutive 15 second trials. We then tested them again on June 29, and for the last time today, on July 6. It has been amazing to see the immense growth and development that has occurred over the last 20 or so days! They’ve gone from tiny little tadpole-looking creatures, to much larger, much more fish-like looking animals.

Some of the South Rolly fry - if you look closely, you can see their orange bellies filled with brine shrimp!

Some of the South Rolly fry – if you look closely, you can see their orange bellies filled with brine shrimp!

Under the microscope, we can now see fairly developed fins, much larger bodies, and bulging eyes that help them to eat the brine shrimp more and more quickly. At the start, many fish were very apprehensive, and would consume only a few shrimp over the two 15 second testing periods. However, today, some were eating upwards of 25 shrimp in the 30 second period! Though some are still a bit hesitant at first, once they start feeding, they don’t look back. Some even eat two brine shrimp at once!

To keep up with the quick growth of these little guys, we have had to make accommodations in the lab. Since the fry are now fed twice a day, this includes making about double the amount of brine shrimp as we were in the beginning. Also, now that they have been moved from petri dishes to quart jars that require water changes every other day, we now have to prepare much more embryo medium (a mixture of water and “instant ocean” salt), now held in a (clean) trash can. This has been made easier by the addition of a water pump, which has made frequent water changes much more manageable and less messy!

Our new receptacle for holding embryo medium, complete with pump.

Our new receptacle for holding embryo medium, complete with pump.

Though I enjoy observing the fish in the jars, I much prefer watching them under the microscope. Even though fish from the same family have the same two parents, are of identical age, and have been raised in identical environments, their behavior varies greatly. This is most evident in their techniques that they seem to have developed in terms of feeding. When we test them, and move them from their jars into small petri dishes, their reactions are very different across the board. Some adjust right away, swimming around calmly as if they’re patiently waiting for the food to be dropped in, while others dart around frantically from side to side. Others seem mesmerized by their reflections in the side of the dishes, and remain staring at themselves even after the brine shrimp have been added. My favorite to watch are the fish that stare at their reflections, but once they see the reflection of the shrimp behind them, they start gobbling them up immediately. I also enjoy watching the fish who try to eat shrimp but can’t quite get them fully in their mouths to swallow, yet still try to eat more simultaneously. Overall, they have been so interesting to watch.

Less than half of all the jars filled with fry!

Less than half of all the jars filled with fry!

From here, fry will go in many different directions and will be a part of various different experiments and projects. Many of them will become part of Miguel’s projects. Others may eventually be involved in studies focused on life history traits, body size and shape, or other behavioral projects. Though they have come a long way from their embryonic stage all the way in Alaska to their current stage of fry at Clark, their journey has only just begun!

 

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The Charmed Life

Working and living with a small group of people can be draining, especially when you’re putting in the long hours that we are to try to find as many stickleback as possible. Luckily, a good crew [like ours] will make the days easier by finding time to enjoy the beautiful land we’ve traveled to with a smile or a joke or something unexpected. After a long day of travelling and trapping, we had one more lake to find in the Green Point campground. As we wandered up and down a beautiful ocean side trail to no avail, Eric fortuitously took a moment to fall face first into a bed of moss and grass that faced the ocean.

“It smells delicious!” he cried. “Come on down!”

We skeptically obeyed. A soft landing and a sweet but earthy smell welcomed us. These are excerpts from the photoshoot that followed:

Sweet Emma, Jenna, and Eric enjoy the sunset from the patch

Sweet Emma, Jenna, and Jason enjoy the sunset from the patch

A possible stickleback sighting!

A possible stickleback sighting!

Let's compare

For comparison; note the differences in fin morphology

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sculpin try to crawl to the ocean

Sculpin try to crawl to the ocean

And a real man's beard

An actual sculpin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A good laugh

A good laugh attracts…

All of a sudden, this guy was a few feet from us, sniffing at our traps. The first fox sighting of the trip and it was so close we could pet it.

…this guy! All of a sudden, this fox was a few feet from us, sniffing at our traps. The first fox sighting of the trip and it was so close we could pet it.

I wonder how I came to deserve such a very charming scene. After a battery of photos, the fox ran back into its hole, and we strolled back to the car through the iris-laden path.

 

 

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Swimming with Stickles

The view of the fjord of Western Brook from the snorkeling site

The view of the fjord of Western Brook from the snorkeling site

Newfoundland is an amazing place, and an amazing place to look for stickleback.  We found stickleback in most of the ponds we looked for them in, but one of my favorites was Western Brook Pond.  This location was a 3-kilometer (about 2 mile) hike out, but the trail was gorgeous.  Considering some of our other hikes, such as through a bog with no trails earlier that day, this one was a walk in the park, but this time we had to haul our dry suits and snorkel gear as well—we finally got into a pond.

 

Jason and I (Jenna) getting into Western Brook to watch the stickles

Jason and Jenna getting into Western Brook to watch the stickleback

When we got there, we dropped our gear on the beach and Jason and I immediately suited up for the freezing water.  We had to put on layers and layers of clothes before even starting to put on the dry suits.  It’s a hassle to get into one, but once in the water it was definitely worth it.  I’ve been in the stickleback lab for about 2 years and have never been able to see them in the wild.  When I first saw stickles in Pinchgut Pond from the shore it was so exciting, my first wild stickles!  But seeing them under the water, swimming with them, and being able to observe their behavior was even more exciting.  I got to see courtship behavior, diversionary displays, feeding activity—it was so different and yet the same as what you see in the lab.  The basic behaviors were the same but it was amazing seeing these displays I’ve only seen in tanks occur in nature as well.  You aren’t setting anything up, placing variables, or anything; it is natural for the stickleback and it’s fascinating to witness.

Some size variation of females from Western brook

Some size variation of females from Western brook

Actually swimming with the stickles was probably my favorite part of this trip; though there were many other memorable moments this one was the most stunning and marvelous parts.  I’m definitely going to miss it here.  Everything in Newfoundland is beautiful, everyone is incredibly kind, and I hope we can come back soon and continue the work we just began to start this summer.

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We Seine in the Rain: The Beginnings of a Newfoundland Adventure

Several packed days into this Newfoundland adventure, our team has already experienced a range of successes and emotions, from abject failure to thrilling triumph. Below are some tidbits and highlights from the trip so far!

The All-star Crew:

Jenna Kosmo: Rising junior, StreamTeam dream teen, nurturer of baby stickleback, cat lover, Disney savant

Jason Moreira: Rising senior, stickleback whisperer, “the great stomach,” Nickleback lover

Melissa Graham: Clark PhD student, avid birder, Oreo groupie, Celine Dion expert

Eric Shultz: Professor at University of Connecticut, stickleback enthusiast, friend of the blog, student of the world

Emma O’Melia [myself]: Rising junior, amateur photojournalist, historian, professionally curious, Amy Grant wannabe

 

Jenna's long lost twin/Bob's cat Newfie

Jenna’s long lost twin/Bob’s cat Newfie

Day 1: The crew sleepily rolled off our ferry onto the island of Newfoundland at 6:30 a.m. Friday morning. A stop at Tim Horton’s for coffee and nibbles before we headed down the Trans Canada Highway to the home of our host, Dr. Bob Scott [a former Ph.D. recipient of Clark and current director of the Bonne Bay Marine Station].

After dropping off some things at Bob’s, and figuring out that it would be most efficient to transport our gear with the trunk of the car closed, we headed to our first lakes to observe and set traps. We were delighted to find that our exploratory trip to search for our favorite fish would not be in vain; stickleback, in all their glory, do indeed live here, and in many different environments! What a relief.

A brightly colored male at Blue Lake

A brightly colored male at Blue Pond

 

Day 2: Saturday was a grey day, brightened drastically by a Disney sing-along in the car. The highlight of the day was a spot called Cook’s Brook. Not only did we find hundreds of stickleback, but Bob’s daughters joined us. The girls were so heartwarming to watch; once we told them a little bit about stickleback, they were eager to stomp through the brook to find the fish themselves. They had a great eye for the spotting them in the rolling waters, certainly better than I do. It’s always fulfilling to share your interests with someone, but children do not pretend their interest nearly as often as most adults. It was touching to see them take on a fascination for observation in such a short period of time. It may help that their dad has instilled a sense of adventure and appreciation of nature in them, but their genuine curiosity was my favorite part of the day.

Cook's Brook

Cook’s Brook

Day 3: Sunday was even greyer! We used our seine in some terrible weather at Blue Pond and Pinchgut Lake.

A seine (rhymes with “rain”) is a long, rectangular net that is dragged through the water to pick up fish. It covers a larger area than a trap would, and our seine was craftily tied to hockey sticks [donated by Bob] to make seining easier. Once you’ve covered a certain area, you pull the seine out of the water, pick out any fish of interest, and throw the rest right back into the water.

Could Eric be trying any harder to fit in with the Candians?

Could Eric be trying any harder to fit in with the Candians?

Jenna and Eric comb the water for hockey pucks

Jenna and Eric comb the water for hockey pucks

We drove further down the coast* to our home for the next week, the Bonne (pronounced like “bone’”) Bay Marine Station. We finished our day by setting traps at 4 spots in varying amounts of rain, grilled, and snuggled up for a research party. I love that this is group of people with whom I can hop into a lake, barbeque, sing embarrassing songs, then sit around discussing trimorphic plating of stickleback. The promise of sunny days and more discovered fish lies ahead!

*Newfoundland fact: “Down the coast” actually refers to travelling north, and “up the coast” refers to going south; the currents off the west coast of the island that flow from north to south birthed these terms that are handy for confusing tourists.

The all-star crew after successful search at Cook’s Brook. From left to right: Emma, Jenna, Jason, Melissa, Bob, Eric

The all-star crew after successful search at Cook’s Brook.
From left to right: Emma, Jenna, Jason, Melissa, Bob, Eric

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Could we borrow a moment of your time and a quart jar of fish?

Dear Alaskans,

Though we may not be your typical neighbor, stopping by to request a cup of sugar, we mean no harm.  You see, gaining access to lakes is a peculiar business for us, since many are private with no public entrance.  It puts us into a bit of a pickle. If we come knocking at your door, it is because your lake contains a population of stickleback that is unique and very interesting to us.  It is likely one that has been monitored for 20+ years.

Counting the fish we've caught and choosing some to preserve

Counting the fish we’ve caught and choosing some to preserve

These fish (threespine stickleback) show immense variation from lake to lake, which is part of the reason why they fascinate us.  So, we do apologize for the inconvenience, but it is impossible for us to go to the lake down the way for a sample instead, because the stickleback in the lake down the way are not the same as the stickleback in your lake.

We will only take a moment to set our traps, let them soak overnight, and quietly return tomorrow to pick them up.  The traps do not hurt the fish; they allow for the fish to swim in and hold them live inside, preventing them from swimming out.

Setting traps at Sunshine Lake

Setting traps at Sunshine Lake

We have met many wonderful and generous people on our excursion around southern Alaska this year and in the past.  While we are the ones lugging around fish-filled buckets, your contribution of graciously pointing us to your lake is significant, and we would not have fish-filled buckets to lug without you.

If you open your doors to find a group of swamp-stinking, rubber boot-wearing, minnow trap carrying individuals, a wave on to your lake is all we need and we will leave with a jar of fish and the utmost gratitude.

We now say so long, and thanks for all the fish.

We hope to see you next year.

 

From your 2013 Clark StickleCrew

Cynthia, Emma, Ryan, and John carrying traps, buckets, and samples out of Whale Lake

Cynthia, Emma, Ryan, and John carrying traps, buckets, and samples out of Whale Lake

John, Emma, Cynthia, Melissa, and Ryan

 

P.S.  There are stickleback lovers from other universities in the lakes too, we can vouch for them if they show up with a quart jar as well.

P.P.S.  If you have friends in the neighborhood, we would love for you to share our goal with them so if we end up on their doorstep one day, they won’t be so confused.

P.P.P.S.  If you would like information or pictures from your lake, feel free to contact any one of us or fellow lab members (See tab above)!

Posted in Blogs, Stickleblog Tagged with:

Feeding our fragile fry

The feeding performance tests have begun! Last Friday Jenna, Kendall and I performed our first test on the Anchor River, Rabbit Slough and Resurrection Bay populations and this Wednesday we did our first test on the the Whale, Bear Paw and Morvro populations. We perform the test by assigning each of us a specific water body out of which we test five fry from five families. Using a microscope, we observe the fry as it is exposed to a load of brine shrimp and once the fry begins to feed we start the timer for 15 seconds, keeping count of how many shrimp it eats. We then do another 15 second trial immediately following the first.

Stickleback embryos a few days after arrival, look closely and you can see the little black eyes forming!

Stickleback embryos a few days after arrival, look closely and you can see the little black eyes forming!

Watching the stickleback under the microscope is simply fascinating. You can see their eyes moving back and forth and the sudden lunge forward as they gulp the frantically swimming brine shrimp down. These fry were only about 2 days old (it had been 2 days since they first fed), and you could tell that not all of them had really gotten the method down (a few looked as though they hadn’t quite learned how to use their mouths just yet). Some seemed confused and lackadaisical while others seemed a bit hysterical, wanting to eat the surrounding shrimp but not knowing how. There were a few, however, that picked up on the correct technique right away and those were my favorite ones to watch; they were cool, calm and collected as if they’d been feeding on brine shrimp for months.

Baby stickleback after hatching

Baby stickleback after hatching

Aside from the testing, which we’re doing once a week for each shipment we’ve received, we have a few daily chores in the lab that we’re sure to take care of. Since most of the fry are now old enough to eat, we need to be sure to feed them at least twice a day so that means always making sure we have brine shrimp ready to go. At this fragile age, the fry are growing fast and need as much food as they can get so we try to feed them until we can clearly see their full, orange bellies. We’ve also been cleaning the water in all the petri dishes/mason jars and replacing it with new embryo medium (we now have a whole trash bucket filled to satisfy our embryo medium needs). In addition to cleaning the water, we are making sure to remove any fry that have died. The dead fry are actually quite intriguing to me. They look like little fishy ghosts; bright white with bulging black eyes and a flowing ghostly tale. Spooky!

Embryo clutch from the first shipment

As of now, we’re hoping to begin testing our third shipment of fish (Willow, South Rolly and Lynne) on Saturday and yesterday we received our final shipment of fish from Beverly, Boot and South Rolly which should hopefully be ready for feeding by next week. I’m excited to see the change in results as the fry learn how to feed and improve their techniques. Eventually they’ll be eating 50-100 brine shrimp a day so it’s up to us to keep with these speedy little guys!

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Window seat: one last gift from Alaska

I had every intention of sleeping on my 9:25pm flight out of Anchorage to Minneapolis, but the mesmerizing views from my window seat caught my attention and refused to let go for quite some time.

IMAG1839At first, my mind is completely present, attempting to take it all in – the countless snow-covered mountains, the water, the clouds; working in conjunction to create the scenery before me, which seems so still as we swish by. Eventually, though, my thoughts begin to seep out into the clouds, swirling over the mountains and getting lost in the vastness. My mind wanders into the past ten days I have just lived: my bedroom window taking up the majority of the wall, allowing sunlight to illuminate the room at almost all hours of the day and providing a view of the river visible through the trees; my growing fondness for Papa Bear (John); the wonderful Melemthia bonding (Melemthia = MELissa + EMma + CynTHIA); the car rides with Papa Bear and the cubs, filled with laughter and magnificent views (cubs = Melemthia + Ryan); the many lakes visited in our quest for stickleback; my next blog post…

The night before, I had attempted to start writing a post explaining my delightful experience

Melemthia

Melemthia

at Lynne Lake that day. However, I had found myself unable, as I often do, to translate my thoughts into words. Now, as I sat staring out the airplane window but no longer absorbing the sight of the mountains below, I made an effort to break down the experience into fragments I could describe with words. What had been so great about being in a dry suit? To start, I was finally able to indulge in my temptation to jump into the water, which I had refrained from doing in previous lakes. But the dry suit was more than simply being in the lake – it allowed me to see, breath, and stay warm and afloat in the water for hours, thus inviting me to explore the world that sticklebacks inhabit. My job was to swim transects across a section of the lake and record data regarding my stickleback encounters. Even though I only saw one or two fish during my first few minutes in the water, it was thrilling to commence traversing the lake while my eyes searched for movement, noting the changes in depth and bottom cover and the way in which light rays sparkled in the water. My excitement intensified as I began to encounter more and more stickleback and had the opportunity to experience first-hand some of the behaviors that had been described to me previously. Even if my understanding of the situations I observed was only partial in most cases, it was enough to captivate my attention and increase my curiosity and desire to partake in the study of their behavior.

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After reliving the experience that left me marveling at Lynne Lake, I woke up to see darkness outside my window. Sleep had come without me realizing it, and my time in Alaska appeared to be a distant memory.

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A Stickleback Spectacle

“When you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean. Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent.”

― Dave Barry, Blub Story; A Very Deep Experience

He hovers above his nest, gently fanning his fins. Resting below are his precious eggs. He has likely performed a serious of courtship behaviors to lure a female inside the nest he built, where she dropped her eggs and he fertilized them immediately after. These eggs are his everything; they are the purpose to his two years of growth to about 3 inches long, the reason why he has a bright red underbelly to attract females, and the reason he will expend all his resources to raise the offspring until they can survive on their own and he can die.

A male from a neighboring nest darts a little too close for comfort, and he chases him away with an aggressive, stinging dart. He looks up at me from time to time, and I hold my breath. Initially, I am taken by the blue of his eyes and by my proximity to this fish I have heard so much about. To see him illuminated by a shaft of light in the reeds offshore, and not by the florescent lights of the lab, is more striking than I had anticipated. A few minutes later, I hold my breath in some misguided hope that it will keep my presence from alarming him. He looks away each time, more concerned about the threat the other stickleback pose to him than the dangers of this floating log.

The baby blue eyes of a stickleback from Little Meadow Creek

The baby blue eyes of a stickleback from Little Meadow Creek

My male swims suddenly up to join a group of stickleback looking for food near the surface. After a few seconds, he swims hastily to the lake floor, gesturing wildly as if he has found something delicious to eat there. A few of the stickleback from the foraging group have joined him on the bottom. My male swims proudly away as they peck at the bottom at the food that was never there; this tricky male diverted the group to a spot away from his nest so they would not eat his hard-earned eggs, as some stickleback have been known to do.

Definitely not me

An anonymous researcher struggles to get into her dry suit

This is the scene I saw in my dry suit and snorkel in Lynne Lake. In only a period of 30 minutes, I had seen nearly every behavior I had so systematically dissected in the lab over the past semester. While waiting and watching behavior in a lake is rigorous work (not to mention the work that goes into just trying to get into your dry suit and accessories), it is rewarding to see these intricate behaviors that make the stickleback multifaceted and interesting organisms to study.

These fish are dramatic in their own right, more so than I could probably describe in a series of posts. It’s odd to watch a lake from above and have little to no idea of the complexities that occur below the surface, then to snorkel around in the same lake and see a whole new society that functions mostly apart from (and often much better without) human interaction. What Dave Berry says of the ocean above is applicable to these lakes as well; they have become so much more beautiful to me now that I have seen the vibrant life that exists below the surface.

Peace out lake

Peace out lake

 

Emma’s field biology word of the day: fecund (adj.)

Definition: fruitful in offspring or vegetation; prolific

Use in the field: “Often larger stickleback are more fecund than smaller females; they simply have more space and resources to devote to their offspring.”

Source: Merriam-Webster 2013

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“How to Milk Macroinvertebrates”

 

So, the free snapping of a digital camera can catch the funniest things.

Today was the first day of Gaby’s macroinvertebrate sampling in Brooks Woodland. From our early morning start, we knew it would be a hot, muggy day. The night before, the Worcester area boomed with thunderstorms (which were absolutely spectacular to say the least). The USGS Current meter on the east branch of the Swift River at Hardwick looked high but reasonable for sampling, so we decided to go. Today’s crew consisted of Hannah, Gaby, Cynthia Allonso, Jenna Kosmo, Max Anderson and myself. Upon arriving at Brown’s Pond (our starting point), we noticed that the flow was pretty high.

We donned waders and backpacks, found the trail and began toward our first sampling site. In Macroinvertebrate sampling, it is important to work downstream to upstream so as not to capture specimens from other places also dislodged by us. So, we started downstream at the remnants of an old beaver dam, which had stagnated the section upstream from us for about a decade and recently fell apart. This section of stream is especially interesting to us because of the drastic change it has endured over the last year. In transitioning from a beaver pond to a swift meadow stream, the cast of characters is likely to quickly change. This idea is especially interesting in light of Hannah and Tom’s freshwater mussel work, because these mussels might be in the process of re-colonizing the area. However, that is a thought for another day.

The only one out of all of us who had any sizeable experience in this sampling method was Cynthia, who gave us a great primer in using a Surber Sampler (how not to let in too much sand or loose the cap and maybe capture some bugs). At first, it was slow going, but after a few samples, we got into a groove. In our first run, Max, Cynthia, Jenna and I sampled, Hannah photographed, and Gabby fastidiously took notes. We sampled 3 more riffles and brought home 20 full jars.

Cynthia and Max sample the stream.

Cynthia and Max sample the stream.

When sampling was done, we tiredly glided home in the Clark University van, and ate a massive dinner (or at least I did). We reconvened later to make sense of our notes and label pictures. The tired and punchy crew that we were, we found utter hilarity in some of the photos. In one picture, Jenna and I were emptying a sampler, and something about the combination of my backwards hat, baggy waders, messy beard, look of concentration and the sampler’s resemblance to an udder gave us the idea that I was milking an invisible cow. That one gave us hours of comedic material…

Sitting back in our comfy suite with a cup of tea, my body was heavy, tired and happy. My legs could still feel the stream flowing against them, much like how you can still feel the rocking of a boat after a long day of boating. I could still feel the warmth of the sun on my neck and arms. I am so happy that I can be a part of something in which I can engage my mind and still feel the physicality of a good days’ work.

-Nick

And the infamous photo...

And the infamous photo…

Posted in StreamEcoBlog Tagged with:

Are you a cub or a mama bear?

I was asked this question on one of the first days in Alaska. The logic behind the question was to see if I consider myself one of the faculty members running the trip or one of the students. Now that may seem like a ridiculous question, but it actually triggered a line of thoughts that most post-docs experience. When does one’s mindset shift from being a student (cub) to a faculty member (mama bear – they said John had already been designated papa bear!).  Is it when you finish your defense? Is it when you secure your first faculty position? My guess is that there isn’t a specific moment for most people and that one’s mindset is highly context dependent. If you are around just students, you probably are more likely to think like a student. If you are around faculty, you are more likely to think like a faculty member. So what does any of this have to do with my trip to Alaska to work with sticklebacks?

Ryan stripping females of eggs and freezing them

Ryan stripping females of eggs and freezing them

I spent my first 10 years in research working with turtles. There was a comfort level there that allowed me to collect data relatively efficiently and spend the rest of my time working on papers and chasing grant dollars. I’d argue that my mindset became more faculty-like over this period. Most of my time was spent thinking and writing about things I knew (or thought I knew). As life would have it though, I was not a faculty member and ultimately I took a new post-doc position in the lab of Alison Bell. That is how I ended up here in Alaska. Upon arrival, my mindset quickly became more similar to that of a student. My thoughts were focused on all of the things I didn’t know. How do you know when a female has ovulated her eggs? What does a successfully fertilized egg look like? How do you put on a dry suit? Am I going to freeze to death in this water? The list goes on.

 

Ryan ready to take a plunge into South Rolly

Ryan ready to take a plunge into South Rolly

Initially, I thought switching to a new study system constituted a step backwards because I had to spend a chunk of time learning the

A fresh clutch Ryan is placing in a tube to analyze for steroid content.

A fresh clutch Ryan is placing in a tube to analyze for steroid content.

answers to relatively simple questions. However, this trip to Alaska has made me realize/remember that this is the part of the process that drew me to science in the first place. I love the pursuit of knowledge and that got lost while my focus was on pumping out publications and grants. I know that when I return home, my focus is likely to shift back to publications and grants but for right now, I’m going to enjoy learning as much as I can about sticklebacks from a number of people that are excited to teach me about them.

 

So I guess my answer to the question is that I’m going to be a cub while I’m up here in Alaska.

 

**Ryan is a post-doc in Alison Bell’s lab at University of Illinois and joined our Summer 2013 Alaskan Sticklecrew to collect clutches from wild females. He will be measuring them for steroid content when he gets back to Illinois.**

 

 

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Alaska?!

“Do I want to go where?!” I thought incredulously as I held my phone to my ear, still in my towel. Well maybe it went more like “Whaa…Huuuh…Whaaa?”. I had heard my phone ring while brushing my teeth after having showered, but as I had a mouthful of toothpaste, I let it go to voicemail. As soon as my mouth was more suitable for speaking, I called back and heard Susan’s voice say: “Do you want to go to Alaska?”. Two and a half days later, in happy disbelief and without much idea of what to expect, I was on my way to join the stickleback crew in the opposite side of the country.

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Five days in Alaska and I am starting to get the hang of the field work behind the numerous insights that can be drawn from the stickleback radiation. I was initially a bit surprised by the apparent simplicity of collecting samples, perhaps because of the complexity of the information they provide. Well, maybe simplicity is not quite the correct word, as collection not only requires determination, but also, if I dare say, passion.DSC_0126

Although I have already mentioned that I did not come to Alaska with many expectations except for that of adventure, I certainly did not foresee the intensity of dedication and sense of purpose that goes into the countless jars of stickleback back at the lab. For, setting and retrieving traps often entails skilled footwork to maneuver through swampy areas (translation: water-filled shoes and soaking wet pants); and if the inhabitants around the lake receive you with a shotgun, as was the case for Whale Lake (well, at least if John says they did), then add a nice walk through densely vegetated forest while carrying equipment. DSC_0160Doing this for a few hours may sound like an easy day at the office, but when the sun does not set until around 1am, you can keep at it all day long! The exhaustion at the end of the day is completely worth it, however, as our work is accompanied by some of the most (maybe even the most) beautiful views I have ever seen, and, as I imagine is the case
for John, the satisfaction of continuing and expanding a lifetime (well the extent of my life at least) of work. Being around someone as energetic and hardworking as John instills admiration as well as inspiration as to how much can be achieved when you truly care about your undertaking. I feel extremely lucky for the opportunity to partake in these stickleback endeavors!

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Baby Stickleback!

Stickleback embryos everywhere!  This week we got our first and second shipments of embryos from the folks up in Alaska.  We’ve been preparing for the arrival for some time now and we finally got the ball rolling.  We had to take each clutch (from 6 populations-Rabbit Slough, Resurrection Bay, Anchor River, Whale, Morvro, and Bear Paw) and separate them into petri dishes.  The counting was a little tedious but soon they will become little fry and the real experiments can begin!

Two experiments that will be happening with these fish involve feeding performance, but one of them has the added variable of tannin levels.  The fish, once hatched, will be placed in either a low, medium, or high tannin level.  We will then be counting the number of brine shrimp a single fish can consume in 15 seconds.

Valerie, Kendall, and Jenna working with the embryos in the lab.

Valerie, Kendall, and Jenna working with the embryos in the lab.

We have to change the water in the petri dishes and make room for the next shipment that should be coming in on Monday.  We’re going to be up to our knees in stickleback!

The embryos should hatch about 5 days after we took them off the ice and then we can start to see if they will learn how to eat.  Tiny little eyes are starting to be visible in the embryos and soon they will be fully developed fish!

It’s very interesting (and exciting) to watch the fish develop.  If you look closely under a microscope you can watch their organs form and even see their blood pumping from their tiny hearts.  It’s amazing how small these guys are.  I’ve worked with preserved clutches from stickleback before, but I was surprised by their size nonetheless.  I can’t wait until they are little fish we can observe and test.

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Pickled Stickles: How to catch the stickleback of your dreams

Our second day in Alaska, we headed down to the Kenai (pronounced Key-nigh) Peninsula to collect some stickleback. The drive was stunning (as usual), and I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the mountains.

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"Rifles are soooo boring, but if they made one in pink...hey wait, what's that?!"

“Rifles are soooo boring, but if they made one in pink…hey wait, what’s that?!”

The first lake we stopped at was Solid Rock Lake, near Soldotna. Some of you might be thinking, “How do I catch a stickleback? Can I shoot it?” While there seem to be no shortage of guns in the grocery stores in Alaska, stickleback are too small to be of any use after being blown through by that pink camo rifle you’ve been looking for an excuse to buy.

Once at the lake, the first step is assembling the traps. These crafty traps snap together to create a structure into which the fish like to swim.

We then throw the traps off the shore, looking for a spot with a bit of cover that the stickleback might usually like to swim through, like short grasses or under a dock.

A single satisfying splash sounds

A single satisfying splash sounds

Very important at this step in the process is to avoid throwing the entire string attached to the trap into the water (Melissa…), or John will give you a very perplexed look.

"What the heck are you doing? Didn't you read Emma's blog post?"

“What the heck are you doing? Didn’t you read Emma’s blog post?”

Let traps sit for a few hours or overnight. Fish are fascinated by the new, flashy attraction in their neighborhood; they climb around and into the traps, yet find it much more difficult to get out than in.

The most stressful part of this system is the removal of the traps. My first day setting traps, after we had visited 7 lakes, John said he hoped we’d find some stickleback in the traps the next morning. While I knew field work could be unpredictable, I was flabbergasted that after we had put in over 70 traps and got plenty slimy in the process, we might not even find stickleback in the lakes.

Luckily, we found fish in nearly every trap the next day! We had captured anywhere from 300-1000 of our favorite threespined friends at each location, a very good day. After counting each trap’s haul, we preserved some of the fish and kept others alive to use in the lab.

A jar of stickleback preserved in formalin

A jar of stickleback preserved in formalin

The preserved fish are split into two groups: some go into jars of formalin and some go into jars of ethanol. Though from the same population, different types of information can be gathered by using these two different preservatives. Formalin will break down a fish’s DNA over time, but will preserve its organs, fins, eyes, etc. for study. Ethanol will preserve DNA longer, so a fish in this preservative could have its genes analyzed.

Genes and tissues like organs are intertwined, so they are both important to studies in the Foster-Baker lab. Enjoy a picture of two star-crossed fish lovers who both were infected by a parasite if you read that whole paragraph.

 

Congrats! You read about preservatives!

Congrats! You read about preservatives!

Though I worked in the lab this past semester, most of my project has been focused on analyzing video tapes of male stickleback in tanks. So while I’ve seen plenty of stickleback on a computer screen and preserved ones in a lab room, I confess that I had not seen a live one until this trip. While setting the traps, I couldn’t see any right off the shore and it was easy for me to become uncertain that stickleback really existed outside of our Clark facilities, much less that they would swim right into our seemingly unassuming traps. But that made pulling out a trap of gleaming three-inch long stickleback all the more rewarding. It’s probably how you felt when you reached the end of that paragraph on preservatives. Or maybe the end of this paragraph. But the quality of my writing aside, it completely linked together everything I had learned about these curious fish in the classroom, the laboratory, and the office together in one fishy swoop.

(For more on this, read Melissa’s charming post about her first siting here)

The final step in collecting stickleback in Alaska: load up the car, and reward yourself with a healthy dose of mountains!

John and Melissa in Homer, AK

John and Melissa in Homer, AK

Emma’s field biology word of the day: turbid (adj)

Definition: thick or opaque; deficienct of clarity or purity

Use in the field: “Resurrection Bay was quite turbid; there was a lot of sediment in the water.”

Source: Merriam-Webster 2013

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Mussel Madness!

Professor John Baker and Audrey Seiz at the East Branch Swift River in Petersham, MA.

Professor John Baker and Audrey Seiz at the East Branch Swift River in Petersham, MA.

My first introduction to Margaritifera margaritifera, the freshwater pearl mussel, occurred during a stream site visit in the Spring of 2010. Brittany Laginhas (’10), a senior at the time, planned to conduct Masters research on the population distribution and habitat requirements of the freshwater pearl mussel in Massachusetts under the supervision of Professor John Baker. I was brought along that day as an extra set of eyes to help initially explore the stream system and look for the mussel.

Student interest in the freshwater pearl mussel and stream systems has grown in the Foster/Baker laboratory since Brittany completed her Masters. I myself became intrigued with the life cycle of the mussel, a topic that invites many questions in Massachusetts streams. After the female’s eggs are fertilized, the early embryos must leave the female and attach to an appropriate host fish, creating a host-parasite relationship between the mussel and a fish. The host fish are typically salmonids, such as trout or salmon; however, this host-parasite relationship has predominantly been studied in Europe where the species is critically threatened due to overfishing and anthropogenic alterations to stream ecosystems. In Massachusetts streams though, salmonids are rare, yet the mussel is common— begging the question I plan to research during my Master’s thesis— is the freshwater mussel using an alternative host fish?

From left to right: Audrey Seiz, Hannah Reich, Professor Geist, and Nick Pagan. At the East Branch Swift River in Petersham, MA.

From left to right: Audrey Seiz, Hannah Reich, Professor Geist, and Nick Pagan. At the East Branch Swift River in Petersham, MA.

As Nick Pagan (’15), Hannah Reich (’15) and I began scouring the literature for information on the freshwater pearl mussel, one scientist’s name seemed to continuously appear – Dr. Prof. Jürgen Geist. Professor Geist, from the Technische Universität München in Germany, is a leader in the study of the ecology, genetics and conservation of the M. margaritifera throughout Europe. Through a mixture of luck and coordination, Clark University’s biology department hosted Professor Geist in the Fall of 2012 for four days. During his visit, Professor Geist presented multiple lectures concerning the freshwater pearl mussel and conservation efforts in Europe. He also traveled to Massachusetts stream sites with Nick, Hannah, Professor Baker and me, showing us how to easily find and identify the mussel. He also showed us how to tell if a mussel is gravid (has eggs). Finally, Professor Geist helped me establish a methodology for my Master’s thesis, including the process of tissue removal for DNA analysis.

Freshwater pearl mussel collected for tissue sampling.

Freshwater pearl mussel collected for tissue sampling.

Since Professor Geist’s visit we have collected around 50 tissue samples for DNA analysis and conducted multiple stream site visits. Also, on June 14th I am flying to Germany to work in Professor Geist’s laboratory and learn mussel DNA sequencing techniques thanks to funding from the Geller Student Research Awards! In the mean time research continues on mussels in our local streams (go Nick and Hannah!).

 

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Stickleback do not make nests in sand-filled plastic dishes!

Live, wild, behavior-doing stickles!

We stopped at Rabbit Slough (an anadromous population we keep “stocked” in the lab), just to take a quick look, and there they were!  John spotted them in a flash.  My first thought was these fish are huge and make our lab fish look puny.

I have read paper after paper about these little fish and I have seen some of their moves in the lab, but the imagination only goes so far, and the four walls of an aquarium are restrictive to the complexity of interactions that occur.  Within a couple of minutes of John pointing out a nested male, we saw very interested gravid females jumping on the male, dorsal pricking, the male showing his nest

Red arrow points at the fish; yellow arrow points in the direction he is facing

Red arrow points at the fish; yellow arrow points in the direction he is facing

(to the ladies and to us!), fanning at the nest entrance and a courtship being broken up when a group of stickles came swimming by.  We watched as an unwanted visitor was escorted from the premises and saw an Alaska blackfish swim through.

All of this greatness while crouched on a shoreline!  What is amazing (and a bit unfortunate) is that a year ago I probably would have overlooked the rich interactions of these little fish and been entirely focused on the northern waterthrush in the tree next to the shoreline and the wilson’s warbler bouncing around the shrub down the way.  It is fun to think that I am adding a new taxon of organisms to notice out in the field.

In the lab, we set up such controlled studies where we focus in on portions of the larger behavioral picture (and males set up nests in sand-filled plastic dishes).  It was really brilliant to get to finally see how all of the pieces come together.  I know that is what we came here to do – find/catch/observe stickles, and it may seem silly that I am so impressed by it all, but I can’t help it.  I am impatiently awaiting the chance to jump in a lake and really get to observe.

 

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A New Start

At long last, we’ve arrived in Alaska! Our weary crew has assembled from all parts of the globe (okay, several stateside locations) to study the threespine stickleback.

The flight into Anchorage from Seattle is beautiful, especially because sun was still high in the sky at 10:30 pm. The first night here, the sun set around 1 a.m. and rose shortly thereafter at 4, which defies all of my previous knowledge of time but works in our favor in the summer. As we travel throughout Alaska visiting lakes and streams, we will climb into the water to observe our three spined friends in their natural environments and collect some of them to send back to the lab

Our first day was dedicated to preparation. The first stop in this endeavor was our storage unit about an hour outside of Anchorage. While this may not sound like a particularly romantic adventure, it seems that every drive in Alaska is a scenic drive. Here’s a shot of Lake Wasilla from the drive up:

Lake Wasilla and the Chugach Mountains in the background

Lake Wasilla and the Chugach Mountains in the background

John and Melissa, accomplished packers

John and Melissa, accomplished packers

After discovering some curiously labeled objects in the storage unit (i.e. dry suits from the 1800s) we packed up the car with fish traps, coolers, and petri dishes, performed some Tetris magic to make it all fit, and headed back to Anchorage.

But we pulled over to make take an impromptu peek at some stickleback superstars. Rabbit Slough is home to one of the most famous stickleback populations. Melissa and I got to see our first proof that sticklebacks do NOT solely exist in Clark’s labs and classrooms.

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Melissa holds back tears at the classic Rabbit Slough

 

Though we weren’t our busiest, I was able to better visualize the next two weeks in Alaska and all the trapping, wading, planning, photographing, driving, and scenery-appreciating they will involve. And what better place to do so than in sunny Alaska?

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Up and Away: Journey to Alaska

5/28

After catching three flights, one only by running through the Chicago airport, and 15 hours of travel, I was caught off guard by one

Caught off guard by the phenomenal view

Caught off guard by the phenomenal view

of the most stunning views I have ever seen.  I may just be saying most because I am at this very moment looking across white topped mountain peaks as far as I can see and not at this moment seeing the rest of the beautiful sights nature has offered me.  Nevertheless, my brain is saying WowSpectacular.

My morning started with plopping a bacon duct tape-wrapped cooler (see picture) onto the baggage scale at the Logan airport. The United agent laughed approvingly of my choice in adhesive and asked me what was in the cooler.  I told him “Empty tubes and petri dishes for collecting research samples.”  He gave me an open-mouthed, tilt-headed confused look, so I followed up with, “Biology stuff.”  He nodded with an “Ah” and slapped on a baggage sticker.  I’ll lead with latter version next time.  I asked if he thought I had enough tape on it, to which he replied, “Couldn’t hurt to add another layer of bacon.”  Then I was off to wind through the security line maze and jump on the first flight of the day.

Our bacon-wrapped cooler filled equipment and ready to take flight to Alaska

Our bacon-wrapped cooler filled equipment and ready to take flight to Alaska

Weather systems across the states made for a great deal of turbulence while flying today. Between the bumpy ride and not sleeping for long last night (a mixture of anticipation and last minute packing), my stomach has taken refuge in my throat.  I had booked window seats on the cheapest flight option taking me on the not so direct route from Boston, to Chicago, to Houston, to Anchorage.

To make the more interesting, each of my connecting flights had started boarding long before I was off of my previous flights.  When I got into the Chicago airport, I was amused and horrified to find that my next flight was boarding in the next terminal over.  I strapped my backpack on tight and started out on a light jog.  When I switched planes in Houston, I was happy to see that my connecting flight was at the next gate over but initially a bit confused not to find other passengers lined up to board.  I approached the gate, digging for my boarding pass, and the airline rep said “Are you Melissa Graham?”  Hah!  They shut the door behind me as I took my seat.  I will never complain about a layover again.

Having already been sitting for 6+ hours, about to sit for another 7, and my stomach still not yet returned to my abdomen, I was grateful for some Dramamine, a good book (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and a window to lean up on to go in and out of snoozing.

I would open the shade every once in a while to take peaks at where we were, mostly to find milky cloudy whiteness and a lack of a view, but sometimes plots of farm land, suburb communities neatly lined up with turquoise backyard pools, or curvy country roads carved out from surrounding forest greenery.  I paused to take in the scenery, but usually went back to my book after a brief moment.

The last few times I opened the shade, we were in the clouds, so like I said, I was then taken aback after raising the shade and finding such a beautiful scene.  I haven’t closed the shade since.

The pictures do not do it justice (as is often true of pictures).  It doesn’t help that the only camera I have directly on me is my little iPod.

The difference between our structured, plotted towns and the chaos of a mountain range is astounding.  I saw a shallow pool of water near the top of a peak and it was as clear and blue as the artificial turquoise swimming pools in the rigid suburbs.  I didn’t know that color existed in nature, or at least I had never seen it with my own eyes (I am sorry I didn’t snap a pic).  The distance that the chaos reaches out to is lost to my brain. At times when the sky is free of clouds corrupting my view, it is my own eyesight unable to bring the hazy mountains on the horizon into focus that prevents me from seeing more.

 

Spring is the reawakening of the natural world – trying to free itself after months of forced suspension.  I can see it in the mountains. They look like they are trying to escape from their suffocating shroud of snow wherever they can: the high jagged peaks emerge from

snowy slopes and rivers in the ravines gain icy reanimation after being frozen in space.  I keep being told that it has been a long winter and a late spring in Alaska this year generally.  My bet is that most of these peaks do not ever feel the full relief of spring.

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Clark has a new Stream Team!

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Last year, I experienced for the first time the joy of sitting in a stream on a hot, humid summer day, with my impermeable waders keeping me dry while allowing the cooling and soothing effects of the ripples rushing to get by; all in the name of conservation.

 

From June to August, as part of my internship with Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, I teamed up with Doug Rice and Katie Minnix to initiate an assessment of the water quality of four different streams in the Otter River Watershed in north central Massachusetts. Such a task entailed spending several hours a day at the beginning of each month surrounded by the beauty of the protected areas in which our streams were located at while collecting macroinvertebrates and taking other measurements  (temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, etc.)

DougIt was not all sun and games, however, as even more, sometimes seemingly endless hours were spent back at our lab at Clark peering through dissecting scopes in an attempt to identify the thousands of macroinvertebrates in our collections. While the identification process eventually came to be more on the tedious side, it certainly trained our eyes; for looking back to the first time John took us to a stream to demonstrate how collection was done, I could hardly make the macroinvertebrates out from among the sand and pebbles on the mesh net. By August, however, Doug and I could identify several of the tiny species while out on the field, as we had examined them under the dissecting scope hundreds of times.
IMG_0018The macroinvertebrates Doug and I collected, along with the other measurements Katie helped us take, provided us with an idea of the water quality and condition of each stream; information we then passed on to Mount Grace for their conservation efforts. While my work this summer no longer involves the fascinating little creatures I remember so fondly, I look forward to joining the Stream Team on a couple of their adventures and reading about the rest in this new and exciting StreamEcoBlog!  This year you will more often find me writing for the Stickleblog.

 

 

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Stickle-ventures in Alaska

1I am lucky enough to have spent the past week in Alaska (and lucky enough to be spending one more week here!). I have explored the stunning lakes, mountains, wildlife, glaciers, and much more with a great crew from the stickleback lab at Clark. My time here started off with adventures to a number of lakes to drop traps so that we could make collections and do crosses in the lab here at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. We had varying degrees of trapping success across lakes (Cheney Lake is driving us mad; where are all the stickleback?!?), but got to explore different views of beautiful Alaska. Several lakes, namely Kings (pictured) and Falk, among others, have the most gorgeous views of mountains and I could imagine myself living beside them and waking up to a postcard view. But only in the summer as the darkness and cold in the winter is much less appealing.

In the free moments between trapping and crossing, we like to go exploring. One stop along the way to and from Wasilla (where several of our sampling lakes are located) allowed us the opportunity to meet Harmony, the wolf. Miguel is on the hunt for handmade masks, so when we spotted a shop on the side of the road, decorated in ornately carved figures, we decided to take a look. As we approached we saw a very wolf-looking dog leashed to a tree outside the shop. There were no masks to be found, but Audrey asked the owner about this dog on our way out and he replied with ‘That’s no dog. That’s a wolf!’ To our excitement he let us pet this beautiful creature and oh what a sweetheart she was! After a nice backrub from Audrey and me (Miguel had to wait because she is wary of men), Harmony rolled onto her back so we could scratch her belly. Then Miguel came over and introduced himself to her and she was just delighted to have three people petting her. We wave to her every time we pass by, now.

2On a girls’ day out to the field, Dani, Audrey and I took another detour, this time up to Hatcher Pass. First, we gazed out along the rocky path of the Little Susitna River (pictured) and then made our way up the pass where we stopped to take in the breathtaking views of the mountains and valley surrounding us. We made our way to the top where we explored Independence Mine State Historical Park, an abandoned gold mine. It turned out to be a fantastic day of moose sightings (see Audrey’s P.S. moose post), stickleback trapping and detouring.

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Adventures continued the next day when Lauren, a former Clark stickleback lab member, joined Dani, Audrey and me for a trip to the Portage Glacier in the town of Whittier. When we arrived at the visitor’s center, I was astounded to see several icebergs floating in the nearby glacier lake. I don’t think they were quite as large as the iceberg that took out the Titanic, but they were pretty cool nonetheless! We then ventured into the creepy one lane, miles long mountain tunnel that took us into Whittier and closer to the glacier. After a brief exploration of the tiny town and much hypothesizing about the extremely large and sketchy abandoned Buckner Building not far off in the distance, we made our way to the hiking path. The path was a fairly steep, one-mile trek to one of the most breathtaking places I have ever seen. In one direction was the Portage Glacier, a grand piece of ice to say the least, and in the other an amazing view of the Prince William Sound and the mountains that line it. We spent a lot of time at the top investigating the wild flowers and many paths, each of which provided a different, but equally incredible view. We ended the day with a delicious home cooked meal of stickle-tillas (or open faced quesadillas to non-stickleback folk). Turned out to be quite an epic day of adventuring and I am very much looking forward to the adventures to be had in the coming week when Miguel and I will be focusing on collections for his Ph.D. research.

 

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Waiting for Moose

There are so many wonderful things about Alaska– the hundreds of majestic lakes, the breathtaking mountains, the thousands of brilliantly colored stickleback, but most important is the awe-inspiring moose.

IMG_2889I have lived in Maine all my life and even so I have never seen a moose in the wild. Working in Alaska is an amazing chance for an undergraduate student to experience both field and lab work, but for me it is also an opportunity to see a real, live moose in all its glory!

Summertime is the moose calving season here in Alaska. Moose mothers and their offspring are roaming around and foraging during the long, sunlit days. I have been told that moose are everywhere; they are on the side of the road, on the highway, on the campus, and around the lakes. This news confirmed that, in Alaska, it must be easy to see a moose and for many people it is a frequent occurrence in the summertime; however this moose spotting luck, for some reason, seems to have bypassed me.

DSC02085Whenever we are in the car driving to the grocery store, walking to the lab, or working out in the field I am constantly looking for them. I even took a walk with Shannon in the woods specifically to the search for a moose. Even with hard work and dedication to the moose search, the past six days in Alaska have yielded no moose. There have been several false alarms involving rocks, twigs, and trees, but the search still continues for a real, live moose.

IMG_2898Although the moose hunt proves unfruitful, I have still had many fantastic experiences. The most remarkable task to date is making stickleback crosses. To begin, we collect live stickleback from several different lakes in the Mat-Su Valley region. Then, we pick a male and a female from a single lake collection and go through a process that ends in fertilized eggs. These stickleback embryos, which we ship back to Clark, will develop into adults and be used to conduct research experiments in our lab. It is exhilarating to know that those fish that are later used in research experiments were created by the members of the 2011 Alaska Stickleback Crew.

Finally, I have one request to anyone reading this post- please send all of your moose spotting vibes to Shannon and me in Alaska because it seems that we need all of the help that we can get!

 

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Life After Alaska

fishcountingI spent three weeks in AK driving to lakes, emptying traps full of stickleback, fertilizing innumerable clutches of eggs by dissecting those stickleback, and then sending mass shipments of embryos back to our lab at Clark University (among other things). A daunting yet satisfying workload, to say the least, but what happened after Alaska?

Well, I flew home to Boston, rested up for a couple of days, and got right back to work monitoring my Master’s thesis at Clark. Some of the embryos we fertilized while in AK were destined for my experiment and they became my life (with the help of many others who were kind enough to lend a hand or two) for the rest of the summer. I said goodbye to the luxury of having weekends off and got to know my stickleback babies on a more personal level. Sounds like hard work, you say? Hardly. Compared to the three weeks I spent in AK previously, my summer was a breeze. I am extremely tcountinghankful to have been sent into the field, particularly at the beginning of the summer where I was suddenly kicked into high gear and forced to reevaluate my priorities. By the time I got back to Worcester I was so used to days packed to the brim with excitement and responsibility that I actually found my thesis work to be quite relaxing. I actually enjoyed taking a few hours a day out of my weekend to visit my developing embryos, and the satisfying sense of accomplishment I was left with afterwards. I think it is safe to say that my time in AK was actually life changing, and allowed me to grow up a little and become more confident in myself in the field and in the lab. Who knew?

coolersI am currently still at Clark continuing my fifth year and moving into the next stages of my thesis work. I have finished my data collection and am currently immersed in the wonders of effect sizes and power analysis, (yay statistics!). I am ready and willing to see where this next year of my life will take me.

 

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The Final Days in British Columbia

 

A belated post this might be, but I felt it necessary to share with our readers the last days of the 2010 expedition to the north.

After a week in Alaska, the strangest thing about British Columbia was that the sun actually set. Granted, it set fairly late, around 9:00 PM, but there was still definite night and day.
For the end of our trip to British Columbia, Team Animal Behavior was on the BC mainland. Instead of a motel, we stayed with one of Susan’s old friends, Norma, a sweet lady who had a great many stories to tell and who is very used to stickleback research.
(It seems that everyone up north is. We would be working at lakes and people would drive by us and ask “Are you the stickle folks?”)

Our primary goal on the mainland was to investigate Hotel Lake. Lily and gang had scouted it out earlier in the summer to try and find courting and parental males, but the lake was empty then.Unfortunately, when Dianne, Lily and I explored the lake, we had similar bad luck. There were fry everywhere, clouds and clouds of them, but very few adults, and even fewer breeding ones.We tried twice, and laid out traps, all met with minimal success.

A view of Hotel Lake from the shore. Stickleback fry congregated near the shorelines

A view of Hotel Lake from the shore. Stickleback fry congregated near the shorelines

Another day saw us trekking to the well-hidden Ambrose Lake. To get there, we had to drive up rocky trails and hike through thick forests and over muddy ground. The lake, however, was beautiful, and there were plenty of parental stickleback.

Hotel Lake

Hotel Lake

The parental fish in this lake were very brightly colored. Even the females, usually drab or silvery, were shades of bright gold and copper. Unfortunately, if the captured fish spent about twenty minutes in a bucket, they lost their coloration. Our collection, then, looked less impressive when preserved then they did in the water.

A courting male in Ambrose Lake.

A courting male in Ambrose Lake.

Our last day was spent preserving all the stickleback we’d caught so they could be shipped back to Massachusetts. Working with that many dead fish and that much formaline is unpleasant, but with three of us working on it, the job didn’t last long.

The trip back to the east coast required a long car drive back to Seattle and early flights. And then, we were all back in Worcester, where there were dishes upon dishes of stickleback eggs that needed attending to and fry that needed feeding.

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Being a Journey Across the Border

The Canadian border, that is.

Team Animal Behavior departed for British Columbia on Tuesday night. The flights landed in Seattle at 5:30 AM, but there was no rest even then. The car had to be picked up (a monstrous Jeep, the only thing that could fit all the luggage) and it was a three-hour drive over the border to the ferry which would take us to Vancouver Island. Well, needless to say we were all very tired, but there were fish to collect and lakes to explore, so we could not be stopped! The following day saw us traveling to Sproat Lake to collect females for color observations.

On the way, though, we had a chance to stop at the Cathedral Forest.

On the way, though, we had a chance to stop at the Cathedral Forest.

 

Cathedral Forest.

Cathedral Forest.

It’s an amazing place. The trees are immense and almost everything is smothered in drooping moss. The ground is covered in large ferns and the whole place feels primeval, like something time forgot. I like to think of it as Jurassic Park, minus the dinosaurs.

The trees are quite big. This one was over 500 ft tall.

The trees are quite big. This one was over 500 ft tall.

Sproat Lake was very nice, despite being cold. The females there are very pretty. There was one that was gold and iridescent. Unfortunately, we came a bit early in the mating season to see much. About all we could see were some very eager males, some who would court with anything that moved.

Today was an early start so we could do Crystal Lake before access to it was shut off. The lake is in the middle of a partly clear-cut forest, but it’s still lovely, and we were much more successful today than anticipated (35 captured males. Susan is tireless).

Tomorrow is another early start to catch an early ferry off the island. Hoo boy.

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Going Rogue. Sort of.

SAM_0062After our fifth day in Alaska we are still not used to the lack of darkness! Our typical Alaskan day starts at eight in the morning, the sun just rising from its laze on the horizon; it never fully sets! Our first full day was extremely busy, with setting and collecting traps from ten different lakes. Fortunately, the last lake of the day, Echo Lake, made up for the “redonculousness” of the hard day’s work with the set of rope swings we found on the shore. Of course our next most logical course of action was to come back the next day for a quick swim.

samLater in the week we discovered what the Alaskan natives call “muskeg”, the swampy marshes that surround the massive amount of lakes in the region. Colin discovered that the muskeg is a force to be reckoned with; he fell into Finger Lake after his first few steps in the muskeg. Luckily he was wearing waders and didn’t get too wet.

Yesterday happened to be Matt “Dr. Wund”’s over-the-hill birthday which we celebrated with a colorful hamburger and fries cake. (He isn’t actually over the hill…yet).

SAM_0100Earlier in the day we managed to collect and set traps at a multitude of other lakes, leaving us tired and in need of some late afternoon fun. We were strolling through a Sportsman’s Warehouse in search of a raincoat for Alicia when Dani noticed some neon orange fisherman’s pants, after which she said to us “hold my stuff I’m going to try this on and you’re going to take pictures”. Needless to say we ended with another good day.

Our next project involves dissecting male stickleback to make crosses for the Clark lab in home base Worcester. We had a successful learning day today and plan to spend all of tomorrow fertilizing about 80 clutches to be shipped home in the next few days.

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Being an Expedition to Seward

Yesterday was an early start for the animal behavior group. We had a two and a half hour drive to Seward and Resurrection Bay planned to catch some fish! Along the way, we stopped many times to take pictures of beautiful Cook Inlet and the mountains.

As we drove it began to get colder. We must have been getting higher into the mountains, because there was snow everywhere. Snow. In June.

It was a strange thing to see, but this is why they call it the Great White North!

It was a strange thing to see, but this is why they call it the Great White North!

 

When we finally arrived in Seward we had to do a bit of off-road driving to get to the lakes. Ponds, more like. We were looking at a large group of ponds in the middle of a large muddy field filled with knee-high grass. My boots and pants were covered in mud and pollen after walking around. The scenery was great though, even though we had to listen to the sounds of seagulls and crows screaming at each other.

bAfter lunch we got to work. Traps were laid to catch fish for our crosses and the equipment to measure color was set up. Lily manned the color station while the rest of us patrolled the edges of the pond, nets in hand, searching for courting and parental males. When the sun came out from behind the clouds, this was an easy task; the pond was shallow and the water clear, and in the sunlight we could see straight to the bottom. The males were brightly-colored and most were guarding nests built into the muskeg-y bottom. Watching them was a fascinating experience. Reading about courtship behavior is one thing. It’s quite another to see it in action, to watch the males chase off rival males, to see the males and females dance about each other, to observe how diligently the males guard their nests and just-hatched fry. Watching multiples males and multiple interactions on a large scale was somewhat dizzying, but gave me a new appreciation for the stickleback mating process.

During our day we had a visitor! A woman walking her dogs saw us gathering specimens and asked about the threespine stickleback. She was treated to the full explanation of our purpose and the evolutionary significance of the fish. She seemed quite interested. It’s nice to know that locals want to learn more about the work we do here.

And her dogs were very friendly.

And her dogs were very friendly.

There’s also nothing quite like cold pizza for lunch during field work. Mmm-mmm.

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The “Sunshine” Coast

zDianne and I arrived up in Alaska a few days ago, after two weeks with Justin and Shannon in British Colombia. It was absolutely beautiful there, despite rather dismal weather (Sunshine Coast? I think not.) It did put a damper on our fieldwork. Here are a few highlights from the trip:

We hiked the Skookumchuck Narrows trail, in Egmont. The hike was a bit longer than any of us expected, mostly because none of us could convert from kilometers to miles. We had both sunshine and rain, and more notably hail. It wasn’t exactly golf ball-sized, but it did make us run back under the trees for shelter. Only a few moments later, we saw a rainbow. We even caught a glimpse of a sea lion in the inlet, but I think our oohs and ahhs scared him off.

yOur trip was early in the season, and many of the lakes we went into didn’t have a lot of stickleback activity. On one of our rare nice days, we went out to Ambrose Lake. It was secluded, and there was a short hike in. We got the lab’s first collection of fish from this lake. I unfortunately lost one of my fins in the water, and Justin bravely swam to retrieve it for me.

Justin and Shannon spent a few days observing fry behavior in Garden Bay Lake. Dianne and I went in search of female stickleback for observations in Hotel Lake. Unfortunately, there was not a stickleback to be found! We’re hoping to see more activity when we return to BC in a week, with Susan and Josh.

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Being a Tale of Success

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A successful day for Team Animal Behavior! This was especially exciting after a washout yesterday. Our primary objective was to dive in Willow Lake to gather courting and parental males and observe color patterns on them. But with the wind and clouds yesterday, no such luck, and we were forced to return early and wait for better weather.

2Today, however…today was sunny and warm, just the sort of weather needed for this work. It was an early start for us in order to get to Willow Lake at a decent hour. Once there, Susan and Dianne suited up while Lily prepared the equipment in the rear of the car. For the next three hours Susan and Dianne patrolled the shallows for males, and Lily and I performed the tests on the fish, which culminated in dropping them in antacids and stringing them up with needle and thread. Those three hours alternated between Susan and Dianne catching more fish than we knew what to do with and us waiting for more fish to be caught, which left time to enjoy the sun on the lakeside.

A future trip would be nice, considering most of the eggs had just been laid. However, I’d still count this as a win, based on how yesterday went!

The next stop was a brief trip to South Rolly Lake in search of pike. The hopes were to confirm that pike were in the lake so that the lake could be used for future research projects. Susan and Dianne were (understandably) tired from three hours in the water so it fell to Lily and I to do the exploring.

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Well, as Lily had already spent time in the waters of British Columbia, she knew what she was doing. Me, not so much. The dry suit I used was leaky and rather too large. I could feel the water creeping in as I searched for the elusive pike. The quest was in vain, though I encountered large numbers of stickleback.

When I returned to dry land some twenty minutes later and removed the drysuit, I was utterly soaked. For all the good it did, I might as well have jumped in without it. So a quick return back to home base was in order to get me into something warm and dry.
On the way back, we saw a female moose grazing at the roadside (no pictures; we were going too fast. But take my word for it!)

Here’s hoping the good weather holds out for us. Tomorrow is Cheney Lake: the search for more males!

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On Stickleback & Socializing

1As a certain mustache-ioed lab member recently put it: “The problem with Alaska is there are too many Alaskans!”

Miguel & I have been trapping for stickleback in the Mat-Su Valley for a week now and what strikes us is the far-reaching and very recent development in this, the greater Anchorage area. In particular the “sleepy” hamlet & hometown of Sarah Palin, Wasilla is bustling with a major highway and boasts a number of large chain stores such as Target, Super Walmart, Lowe’s and Sportsman’s Warehouse. As we drive this stretch of road everyday we were regaled by Mr. Mustache about the good ole days before there were any stoplights to slow us on our way to the 70+ lakes we hope to trap at in the next 4 weeks. The lakes themselves are particularly juicy targets for suburbia’s encroachment. It is rare to trap at a lake (most are pond-sized) with any less than 3 or 4 houses and many have entire subdivisions catering to a lake lifestyle. We drove by a private community that was strictly for pilots of float planes. The infrastructure to support these communities is staggering. Miles upon miles of winding road systems and the gravel excavation pits from whence they came. Downed timber and trash litter the sides of the road and “For Sale” signs are just about as common as “No Trespassing/Private Property” here in the land of libertarians.

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So what does all of this mean for two rogue stickleback collectors? It means that in order to collect at these lakes we often do it on private property and that means befriending the locals. On a typical day we pull up to any number of properties to inquire if we may set our traps for collecting. Most people are more than happy to allow us on their land and, in fact, often wish to learn more about the “minnows” they find off of their dock. We often find ourselves teaching the very young and the not so young that stickleback are indicators of lake health, that the beautiful birds they enjoy must feed their young something and if you let northern pike invade there will be no fish to support the birds.

3These impromptu opportunities to educate the locals is lovely and sometimes they even teach us a thing or two! Today a homeowner recounted observing a stickleback turn on his side & shimmy in the sun. He was quite pleased to see that this important behavior went right into the notes. Often these kind folks invite us to stay or gift us salmon fillets. In addition to humans, we often get “help” from the fuzzy family members of these properties. Today a standard poodle knocked aside our traps and a few days ago, we met monty, a three month old fearless pup who led us right down the long muskeg trail to where we might trap and bounced alongside us through the whole process. We even had a particularly curious kitty who was drawn in by the smell of fish.

4Of course, the story of increasing anthropogenic inputs influencing lake productivity and the resulting behavioral and life history shifts is one that our lab continues to investigate. It seems clear that this story is commonplace across these lakes as more folks choose to live the lake lifestyle. Trapping on these beautiful lakes, across variable degrees of development, will bolster our understanding of such patterns. And in the process we will meet many a friendly Alaskan and maybe, just maybe, take home a fillet or two.

A fillet or two.

A fillet or two.

 

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Daniella Swenton has just accepted a position!

DaniellaSwentonDaniella Swenton has just accepted a position as Visiting Assistant Professor at Clark University. She will step in for Justin Thackeray who will be on sabbatical leave, and will thus teach a portion of Biology 102, Genetics (Biology 118) and a new course in Population Genetics (Biology 225/325).

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Sophie Valena accepted as a Ph.D. student

Sophie-in-the-peas-(2)Sophie Valena (09) has just been accepted as a Ph.D. student in the Evolution, Ecology and Behavior Program in the Department of Biology, Indiana University, begining in the Fall Semester of 2010. This is an excellent program and was her first choice. She not only received full support, but because of her outstanding record, she was selected to receive a Departmental Semester Fellowship, which includes a stipend of $12,000 for a 6 month period. This fellowship is designed specifically to freeing students from teaching in their second semester, letting them focus on launching their dissertation research.

Go Sophie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Daniella Swenton has just joined the Foster/Baker Laboratory

Daniella Swenton has just joined the Foster/Baker Laboratory in a post-doctoral position. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont and conducted her Ph.D. research at the University of New Mexico on the ecological and behavioral maintenance of speciation in mosquitofish. She is teaching Conservation Biology at Clark this spring and we are happy to welcome her to the department!

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Rachel Chock accepted research position

Rachel01Rachel Chock, Masters graduate ’08 has accepted a competitive NSF-funded research position in Chile that will begin in June 2010. She will be conducting research with Dr. Loren Hayes from University of Louisiana, Monroe and Dr. Luis Ebensperger from Universidad de Catolica in Santiago, Chile. The researches focuses on social behavior in degus (Octodon degus), and her personal research focus will be on allonursing by this mammal in the lab and the field. This is an exceptionally exciting opportunity.

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Zombie Fish!

One of the most fascinating aspects of threespine stickleback biology I have learned about while here in Alaska is the parasitism of our wild-caught fish by Schistocephalus solidus. As I mentioned before, Dr. David Heins of Tulane University studies this parasite in an effort to understand how it affects the reproductive traits of threespine stickleback.

 

Fish 4 of 131 in trap 10 at Seymour Lake. (What? We take thorough notes.)

Fish 4 of 131 in trap 10 at Seymour Lake. (What? We take thorough notes.)

A fish with the parasite is fairly easy to spot. Schisto is essentially a long white tapeworm that uses the stickleback as its second intermediate host (its first being the copepod that is ingested by the fish and the third being the fish-eating bird where it will reproduce). Infected fish often appear as the poor fellow above with bulging stomachs and chins a the worm bascially shoves all of the fish’s organs out of the way for it to grow. Eventually, the fish begins to lose color…

Zombie fish! Lauren caught this one with her bare hands at Beverly Lake.

Zombie fish! Lauren caught this one with her bare hands at Beverly Lake.

The worm turns the fish white and changes its behavior so that it moves more slowly and tends to spend more time up near the surface of the water. This mind-control trick makes the infected fish much easier to be picked up by a bird; not only is the stickleback more conspicuous as a white spot in the dark water, but it’s convenient to scoop up without a struggle.

Pretty gruesome, right? Just goes to show that when we’re complaining about things going wrong with our field season, well, things could always be worse!

 

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I’m Leaving On A… Float Plane?

Much like Jeff last year, I got to go with Matt on his annual float plane trip with Scott Christy, a local pilot and very good friend to stickleback researchers in Alaska.

You know how I mentioned before that seeing that eagle snatch the dying grebe from the triumphant loon was the coolest thing I had seen in Alaska so far?

Sporting the latest fashion in hip waders - Rachel stands in front of Scott's float plane. It is lovingly referred to as "the baby."

Sporting the latest fashion in hip waders – Rachel stands in front of Scott’s float plane. It is lovingly referred to as “the baby.”

Oh, I lied big time. This was definitely the best day I have had in Alaska. Despite all our recent poor luck, today went off without a hitch. Number one, Scott is a fascinating individual with many stories to tell – both about his own Renassiance-man-like-life, and about his many travels in search of our little fish. But also, on our trip, I got to see the landscape as I’ve only glimpsed briefly from the tiny windows of the jet planes that take me to and from Anchorage at the beginning and the end of the summer.

Skinny Spruce Lake from the air. Completely surrounded by marshland that gets flooded periodically as the ocean is not that far away.

Skinny Spruce Lake from the air. Completely surrounded by marshland that gets flooded periodically as the ocean is not that far away.

Before we took off, Scott wanted to know if Matt was a one cookie or two cookie kind of guy. One cookie guys want their dessert now (i.e. we could’ve flown out to a pretty cool spot and seen lots of interesting things but probably not catch very many fish), but two cookie guys will hold out and wait a little while in order to earn that second cookie (we fly back to a lake previously collected and try a few others). Matt assured us he is certainly a two cookie guy, so Scott guided us out of Anhorage and across the Susitna Rivers.

Flying in a float plane was a novel experience for me. The smallest plane I’d ever been in previously sat at least 50 people. Scott’s plane seats three fairly comfortably. You feel every shift in altitude and every turn, no matter how gentle or steep. Sitting in the back seat on the way out, I had windows on either side of me and was in a near-constant state of staring from one side ot the other, drinking in the landscape below, curious to know if this was how birds felt looking down on the world.

Yes, that's a fairly amazing view.

Yes, that’s a fairly amazing view.

We had a very successful two-cookie trip. Although we did not catch any fish at the second unnamed lake we landed at – though we did enjoy a tasty lunch in the sunshine despite my picking up 14 new mosquito bites (they like me, what can I say?) – we caught oodles and oodles of fish at Skinny Spruce Lake. (Actually, this is also an unnamed lake, but Scott and Matt named it themselves for, you guessed it, a rather skinny spruce tree in plain sight.)

Scott and Rachel collecting fish at Skinny Spruce Lake.

Scott and Rachel collecting fish at Skinny Spruce Lake.

And then Scott let me fly the plane on the way back! No lie, he had me take the wheel for awhile and keep our nose on the horizon. It was a fairly singular moment in my life. I am convinced that I need to get my life on track now so I can have the time and money to earn my pilot’s liscense because that was one of the coolest things I have ever done.

Scott and Rachel in the cockpit.

Scott and Rachel in the cockpit.

All in all, a wildly successful day. This helps to make up for all the trouble we’ve had so far.

 

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String of Bad Luck – But We Push On!

AKDude

Time flies… I’ve been up here in the Great North for six weeks now, but it feels more like the blink of eye. On June 17th, Matt Wund, our lab’s postdoctoral research fellow flew up to our neck of the woods from the Evolution Society’s annual meeting which was held in Moscow, Idaho this year. He and Sophie Valena were there presenting work on an ongoing project concerning ancestral plasticity of the threespine stickleback (you can read more about this fascinating project by following the links to Matt or Sophie’s biography). Lauren then left very early on the morning of the 19th after a marathon session of packing up our 2009 fish collection to be sent back to the lab in Massachusetts.We were back to being another fearsome foursome, though it more often felt like two dynamic duos. Kat and Jeff continued to visit their lakes in order to observe male stickleback in their natural habitats while Matt took me on to help him in our makeshift lab creating crosses (also known as making stickleback babies). And while Kat and Jeff seemed to be having decent luck getting the data they needed, Matt and I descended rather quickly into an unfortunate state of field season chaos.

I’ve experienced minor setbacks in the field before. Many have been detailed here in this blog. But nothing prepared me for the utter frustration of 1) not being able to get the reproductive fish we needed for making the appropriate crosses, 2) having half of our already-caught fish die in one night, or 3) Matt’s ability to curse like a sailor. (Oh, he actually wasn’t all that terrible. But when things are going wrong, one tends to exaggerate the negativity to make the story sound even more horrific.)

But, of course, there’s nothing that can completely dampen our spirits. I mean, I survived our mid-May camping trip on the Kenai last year, didn’t I? And I’ve heard worse field stories from Matt’s graduate days… So, we went back to our study lakes as many days in a row as we had to in order to get the fish we needed. We paid close attention to our live fish at the UAA lab in an attempt to prevent any more catastrophes at home. And we made very sure to listen to a lot of U2 to keep our morale from flagging.

It also helps when we see adorable fox cubs and their mother gamboling around on the side of the road just waiting for us to take thier picture.

It also helps when we see adorable fox cubs and their mother gamboling around on the side of the road just waiting for us to take thier picture.

 

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Did You Ever See A Stickleback Asking For His Money Back…?

On Wednesday, June 10th, Kat Shaw (you can read her field blog here)and Jeff Huenemoerder arrived for their summer field season in Alaska. Both study behavior of male threespine stickleback, so they are well-suited for collaborating in the field.

Noffer (our Forester) took a turn for the worse. His taillights wouldn’t turn off, so we traded him in for a beautiful powder-blue Toyota Highlander that immediately became known as “the sexy beast.” The Beast seats four people plus all of our equipment rather more comfortably than Noffer could have, so all is well with the world.

Lauren observes Kat and Jeff snorkeling in their dry suits. Willow Lake.

Lauren observes Kat and Jeff snorkeling in their dry suits. Willow Lake.

 

With more people around (Lauren and I no longer have to make dinner every night – woo hoo!), we have a little more incentive to go out and do fun things together. Lauren and I are an efficient trapping machine, but as our collecting winds down we’ve been looking for other things to fill our time. So we all took a trip up to Talkeetna!

They have an annual decorate-the-moose contest in Talkeetna. Don't worry; he's with the band.

They have an annual decorate-the-moose contest in Talkeetna. Don’t worry; he’s with the band.

 

 

Kat, Lauren, and Jeff.

Kat, Lauren, and Jeff.

 

Of course we’re good scientists; we did our fair share of work up in Talkeetna while we were there. Re-trapped two Benka Lake and Trouble Lake (much to Jeff’s mosquito-prone chagrin) and did observations in Y Lake. (Yes, there is an X and a Z.) And then we rewarded ourselves with a walk through the tourist traps and a fabulous dinner at the West Rib Pub and Grill.

Of course, we just wouldn’t be us without a funny story to tell. So when Lauren and I showed up at the access to the trail leading out to Trouble Lake and saw some conscientious citizen’s posted sign about two grizzly bears seen in the area… We decided to be very loud as we walked down the trail. Which is how we ended up singing multiple stanzas of “Down By The Bay” with biology-related lyrics. (See title of this entry.)

 

Other fun things we do: a stickleback pie we made for Kat and Jeff's arrival! I promise we didn't cook any fish. It was peaches and blueberries.

Other fun things we do: a stickleback pie we made for Kat and Jeff’s arrival!
I promise we didn’t cook any fish. It was peaches and blueberries.

 

(post script video)

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Planet Earth

Swans at Beverly Lake, 2008. One example of the waterfowl we often see at collection lakes.

Swans at Beverly Lake, 2008. One example of the waterfowl we often see at collection lakes.

 

Most of the wildlife that we are exposed to while we work in the field up here in south central Alaska is seen in fleeting glimpses. Long enough to scramble for a camera, take a few shaky shots, and then exclaim over the incident. More often, that wildlife is seen at a distance – our grizzly on the Kenai, for example, or any one of the number of moose we see browsing from our seats in the car.

However, we are often witness to the daily lives of the birds that live on the lakes we visit. Red-necked grebes, loons, ducks, terns, Bonaparte gulls… I’ve gotten to the point where I know many of them by sound as well as sight.

So we thought the sounds of grebes and loons calling together was maybe only slightly more interesting than normal when we walked down the dock at Lalen Lake to pull our traps. Our contact, Paul, was sunning himself on the end of the dock.

“Oh yeah, they’re putting up a fuss because there’s an eagle hanging around,” he told us. We nodded sagely, knowing this was certainly cause for smaller waterfowl to put up a fuss, and set about our business.

 

Eagles aren't exactly adored by their avian fellows. (Anchor River. Sorry about the blur from the digital zoom.)

Eagles aren’t exactly adored by their avian fellows. (Anchor River. Sorry about the blur from the digital zoom.)

A few minutes later, the loon’s calls were becoming a bit raucous and we all looked up. There was one loon and two red-necked grebes out in the middle of the lake. The loon was hooting wildly, slapping its wings against the water and stretching out its long black neck. It seemed to be attacking the smaller birds. (We’ve never heard of this happening before, but we have heard some of the locals tell us that a loon will surface beneath or close to other birds to startle them.) Both grebes dove. One resurfaced about thirty feet away from us on the dock closer to shore. The other grebe resurfaced next to the loon, flopping back against the choppy waters, its wings moving weakly. The loon trumpeted and smacked the water as the grebe struggled with its own injured weight.

We stood on the dock, eyes wide, wondering at the unusual attack we had just witnessed. A second later, a shape streaked out of the sky. The eagle was diving with its wings folded about three-quarters of the way and its yellow talons out. It snatched the grebe and winged off silently over the lake as the loon repeated its triumphant calls of victory, a high and haunting sound.

I didn’t even have enough time to swing my camera around and try to get a shot.

As a biology student, this was basically the coolest thing we’d ever seen in our lives. Paul said he’d never seen anything like it in his fifteen years living on the lake. And Lauren merely stated the obvious: “Planet Earth [the famous BBC documentary] right in front of us.”

A pair of red-necked grebes. Last year, I watched slack-jawed as a mother grebe laid an egg in her nest right in front of me. So I've been lucky enough to have seen both the creation and destruction side of things.

A pair of red-necked grebes. Last year, I watched slack-jawed as a mother grebe laid an egg in her nest right in front of me. So I’ve been lucky enough to have seen both the creation and destruction side of things.

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In Which We Try Many Things and Only Sometimes Succeed

Riddle: What happened here?

Riddle: What happened here?

 

This morning dawned a bit cooler due to the rain, but we made ourselves french toast on the camp stove and packed our tents without complaint. We planned to move down to Anchor River today, but only for one night as there are only three places that we really needed to trap (instead of our usual four of five in a day). Having a little extra time, we decided to go for a hike on Skilak Lake Road where there are many trails with excellent views of the lakes in the area. We’d already heard about one trail from our campground hosts.

After packing up camp, we set off down the road and found a nice little trail marked at 1.5 miles.

 

Rachel

Rachel

 

It was a beautiful walk at first. The lupines and roses were all in full bloom, and we had a nice view of lake and mountains off to our left. The trail was easy enough, and there was no one else around to interrupt the peaceful morning.

And then we came across this:

 

Bear scat. In the middle of our hiking trail.

Bear scat. In the middle of our hiking trail.

 

We both stopped and looked at each other for a few minutes, weighing our options. There are plenty of black bears in the area; we saw a few of them last year and have heard of other people seeing them this year. The omnipresent issue of how to deal with wildlife is something most people deal with in Alaska. Even Anchorage has more than a thousand wild moose living within the city limits! Anyway, we decided to hike up the trail a little longer, talking a little louder, being a little more aware.

Cue second pile of scat.

“Well, I’m pooped! Let’s head back to the car!”

Yes. And we hiked all .5 miles of it. Honestly.

Yes. And we hiked all .5 miles of it. Honestly.

 

Off to Anchor River we went.

On the way, we picked up the traps we’d thrown the day previously and found something very unusual at Encelewski Lake (in answer to the above riddle).

Lauren: "Um, I don't think this is going to catch anything."

Lauren: “Um, I don’t think this is going to catch anything.”

 

Seems some moose decided to take a little walk on the shoreline, and… well… The moose is a rather large animal. Needless to say, only nine out of ten traps caught at Encelewski.

We moved on down the peninsula, threw traps at Deep Creek, Anchor River, and Mud Bay, toured around the city of Homer for awhile (because it is gorgeous and nothing like the other cities on the Kenai). We set up camp quite close to the beach at Anchor River. I fell asleep listening to the roar of the ocean, the rush of the wind past my tent, and the calls and cackling of bald eagles along the waterfront. It was glorious.

In the morning, I stumbled bleary-eyed to the bathroom and ran into the campground host on my way back to the car to fetch a peanut butter sandwich. He tilted his head at me and asked if I hadn’t been a little cool last night. I laughed it off (thinking of our Kenai trip last year where we experienced MUCH lower temperatures) and told him I was used to it. …and then I found out that Lauren had slept in the car because the wind whistling around her camping hammock had frozen her out. Oops.

At least it turned into a wonderful day with the sun shining, the eagles flying, and little kids fishing in the river with their parents. We ended our Kenai camping trip on a high note by camping Resurrection Bay and hanging around the city of Seward which I had never been to. But of course, we were glad to be back in Anchorage where the showers and beds were, and even happier that more of our lab members will be coming up to join us in short order.

 

Anchor River beach front. Apparently the locals will take old trees and bury them with the roots up for eagles to land on. I saw plenty of crows sitting in the gnarled twists of wind-blasted wood, but all of the eagles were out in the middle of the marsh grass, stealing scraps left by the weekend fishermen.

Anchor River beach front. Apparently the locals will take old trees and bury them with the roots up for eagles to land on. I saw plenty of crows sitting in the gnarled twists of wind-blasted wood, but all of the eagles were out in the middle of the marsh grass, stealing scraps left by the weekend fishermen.

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Rain and Roses

The view from a giant rock about thirty feet through the sparse woods surrounding our isolated campsite at Hidden Lake. We both sat up here our first night, reading and working for hours until the sun finally disappeared into the hazy twilight that passes for 'dark' in an Alaskan summer.

The view from a giant rock about thirty feet through the sparse woods surrounding our isolated campsite at Hidden Lake. We both sat up here our first night, reading and working for hours until the sun finally disappeared into the hazy twilight that passes for ‘dark’ in an Alaskan summer.

 

Today has given us a new appreciation for how beautiful the weather has been up until now. When we woke up in our tents this morning we found that it had rained. No problem, we thought. The skies looked to be clearing while we ate breakfast (some very tasty home fries from the camp stove). We drove down Skilak Lake Road picking up the traps we’d thrown the day before, humming along with our CDs, contemplating a relatively easy day of throwing only four lakes not too far down the road from Soldotna…

And then it proceeded to rain. All day. Whee!

Fortunately, it did not get that cold so the wet was all we really had to deal with. And since we were only throwing traps in lakes for the rest of the day, I didn’t have to complain about getting Sharpie all over my hands from the running ink on our collecting bottles.

Unfortunately, this morning one of our traps got very stuck on a dead tree at Lower Ohmer Lake. Lauren, who is talented at these things, was not going to leave it there by any stretch of the imagination. She was immediately navigating down the short, steep slope full of wild rose bushes in an attempt to find out what was wrong. Her dedication is admirable. She took one wrong step and sat right down on that short-steep-slope-full-of-wild-rose-bushes with one hand clasped tight around another rose bush. I could only watch in dismay as she picked herself up and started prying thorns and prickers out of her palm. It took the better part of this week to get them all out.

But hey! She saved the trap! She hasn’t lost one yet.

One of the beautiful (and prickly) wild rose bushes

One of the beautiful (and prickly) wild rose bushes

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And Away We Go…

…down to the Kenai Peninsula.

DSCN5857

Kenai board

Some of you may remember my rather epic introduction to the world of threespine stickleback field collecting from last year when Lauren, Jana Loux-Turner, Sophie Valena, and I got to Alaska in mid-May and immediately set out for a week-long camping trip on the Kenai. (If not, you can read about the entire adventure starting at the beginning of the blog here: Four Girls and a Van )

 

The drive from Anchorage to the Kenai is quite beautiful and we took every opportunity to stop and take pictures. Here, Rachel takes in the view through her camera lens.

The drive from Anchorage to the Kenai is quite beautiful and we took every opportunity to stop and take pictures. Here, Rachel takes in the view through her camera lens.

 

This year, we decided to set out for our Kenai camping trip directly after our Talkeetna trip – mostly because two more of our lab members are expected to arrive up here next Tuesday and we don’t really want to be speeding up the Sterling/Seward Highways back to Anchorage in order to meet them at the airport. We are responsible. Go figure.

Of course we stopped in Girdwood for the giant snickerdoodles. They are an amazing confection of sugar and warm-baked goodness and procuring them is an essential stop along the way.

Of course we stopped in Girdwood for the giant snickerdoodles. They are an amazing confection of sugar and warm-baked goodness and procuring them is an essential stop along the way.

 

Some way down the Sterling Highway though…

DSCN5836crop

 

We ran into this guy on the side of the highway. He was rooting around for food of some kind in the grass about twenty feet from the road. Stopped all kinds of traffic (including us). People were snapping photos and taking video and the bear just went on with his day, completely oblivious. It is always a thrilling sight to see wildlife so close, and this was the first time Lauren or I had seen a grizzly bear (though it was still small enough to be known as a brown bear) up here in such proximity. However, the minute he started walking toward our car… We both experienced a moment of heart-stopping, stomach-swooping panic, and then Lauren started the engine and the bear startled away in the opposite direction.

It was still one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen though. Despite the sheer terror.

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The Dirty Kind of Clean

Rachel and Lauren in beautiful downtow(n) Talkeetna! This was after three days of camping so don't judge us too harshly.

Rachel and Lauren in beautiful downtow(n) Talkeetna!
This was after three days of camping so don’t judge us too harshly.

Lauren and I just got back from a three day camping trip. We spent Sunday night in the Nancy Lakes area (camping next to South Rolly Lake), and then Monday night up north in Talkeetna. this involved a lot of driving, and a lot of getting dirtier and dirtier. We’d attempt to get clean when possible – for instance, using hand sanitizer – but we knew this was mostly pretend. We were the.. dirty kind of clean.

Lauren creates fire at South Rolly.

Lauren creates fire at South Rolly.

 

Showers this evening back in the unit at Anchorage felt AMAZING, but they’re not likely to last. Tomorrow we set out for the Kenai Peninsula. This camping trip will go until Saturday as we made a deal with Dr. Heins to pick up the traps he will throw in Tern Lake on Friday. Ought to be fun shotgunning two camping trips in a row!

As we are a bit wiped out from sleeping outside and would like to crawl into bed soon, this post will be rather picture heavy. Hopefully there will be more detaile d entries about the Kenai when we return this weekend. Until then, hope everyone in the lower 48 is doing well. The weather in Alaska has turned beautiful again, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be…

 

A brightly colored male stickleback pulled from Lynne Lake

A brightly colored male stickleback pulled from Lynne Lake


 
Our campsite at South Rolly. Lauren has a hammock-tent that was interesting to try and figure out. She set it up a little more successfully when we got to Talkeetna. I was smart and decided to sleep in the tent. Haha.

Our campsite at South Rolly. Lauren has a hammock-tent that was interesting to try and figure out. She set it up a little more successfully when we got to Talkeetna. I was smart and decided to sleep in the tent. Haha.


 
Lauren contemplates the "beach" in Talkeetna.

Lauren contemplates the “beach” in Talkeetna.


 
A very Alaskan bus parked in downtown Talkeetna. Zero to sixty in ten minutes!

A very Alaskan bus parked in downtown Talkeetna. Zero to sixty in ten minutes!

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Brief Note.

Hello faithful readers of the Stickleblog! To keep everyone up to date – Lauren and I are heading out to South Rolly today for our first camping trip of the season. We will be back in a few days, so you can expect another update then. I also have a lot of pictures from the last few days, and as I mentioned I will have a post about the very interesting parasite that Dr. David Heins studies. Until then!

 

Brief Note.

Remember our pristine, white Subaru? Not For Long has indeed lived up to his name.

530 Noffer back

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I’m Only Happy When It Rains…. (Not)

Lauren trooping out over the muskeg at Pup Lake.

Lauren trooping out over the muskeg at Pup Lake.

Well, we’ve had a spell of dreary weather out here–which makes the job no more difficult, just slightly less gleeful and photogenic. It started on Tuesday. Down in Point MacKenzie the sky was cloudless and bright and all a frolicking pair of stickleback seekers could want. However, as we headed north toward the Meadow Lakes an ominous, inauspiciously dark blanket of indigo was heading quickly toward us from Hatcher Pass. I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like the not-so-distant rumbling of thunder to motivate a field crew to push the limits of efficiency.

Since then the weather has been of a more mundane variety–drizzling, passing showers, shades of grey. Rachel and I stopped in at the Palmer office of Alaska Department of Fish and Game (it’s not wildlife here, it’s game) on Wednesday to introduce ourselves to Dave Rutz, the local area biologist in charge of the Mat-Su. The new person in charge of our permits is adamant about constant communication between researchers and the local area biologists, so instead of just calling the poor fellow constantly I figured I’d stop in and say hello–THEN call the poor fellow constantly. Dr. David Heins of the Tulane stickleback lab arrived Thursday night and has been in contact with us–we’ve negotiated communal breakfasting and had a tête-à-tête over collecting locations. As I understand it, Dave has been sampling out here for as long as Dr. John Baker and nearly as long as Dr. Mike Bell–although his focus is more on the parasites that affect stickleback, namely Schistocephalus. (Note from Rachel: I will have an extensive post on this parasite later.)

Bad weather tends to cause scientists to... act strangely.

Bad weather tends to cause scientists to… act strangely.

 

Dave will be heading down south to the Kenai Peninsula at the beginning of next week, whereas Rachel and I will head north to Willow on our way to Talkeetna. Once we’ve camped up there for a few days we’ll cross paths with Dr. Heins on our way down the Kenai to camp another few days and make our own collections at the lakes he won’t be visiting. Perhaps we’ll be able to meet up with him in Girdwood to chat over a dinner plate-sized snickerdoodle. But let’s be honest, I’ll have one either way.

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Sweet Lorraine

Things have just been going splendidly for us in the field so far. Case in point: I wore a tank top the entire day today. Why is this note-worthy? Two reasons. First, it was warm enough in MAY in Alaska to alleviate the necessity of not only several layers, but also any sleeves at all. Second, despite the early and sunny spring, what few mosquitoes are around aren’t biting yet. How could it get any better?

Lauren's outfit proves the warm weather. She is pointing to the dead moose in the waters of Stephan Lake that drove us out of there pretty quickly both days we were there.

Lauren’s outfit proves the warm weather.
She is pointing to the dead moose in the waters of Stephan Lake that drove us out of there pretty quickly both days we were there.

 

Well, I’ll tell you that, too.

I’ve noticed a bit of development in south central Alaska over the now four summers that I’ve been out here. Mostly, new houses are built and a few lots are cleared for even more future buildings – but today I saw something much bigger (and relevant to me personally). Lorraine Lake is near the tip of Point MacKenzie which is the bit of land directly across the water from Anchorage. It is 15 miles further down the road from the next closest collection location, which, until today, was a dreaded drive over a gravel road with rocks the size of tangerines. Really, it was mor elike driving through a riverbed than a road. But now it is PAVED. The entire fifteen miles. I am sure that Avis will appreciate the dozen fewer dents in the undercarriage that this development has likely allowed. And I appreciate not having to drive 25 miles per hour while clutching the steering wheel with white knuckles and cursing after each rock-meets-metal bang.

 

Butterfly on the gravel next to Noffer.

Butterfly on the gravel next to Noffer.

 

I usually dislike making collections at public accesses during holidays, not for misanthropic reasons but because lake traffic firectly correlates to increased risk of trap tamperings (one trap today was found out of the water at Knik Lake). However, I was pleasantly surprised (as is the trend so far this year) to have had charming conversations with locals at nearly half the sites we visited over Memorial Day weekend. I even dropped the forbidden E-word (evolution) after testing out the waters with a local fisherman who proved to be very interested in our research.

 

Some typical Alaskan wildlife in a Fred Meyer parking lot.

Some typical Alaskan wildlife in a Fred Meyer parking lot.

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In Which Rachel Really Appreciates Optometry

A fisherman at Dawn Lake shows off his catch.

A fisherman at Dawn Lake shows off his catch.

 

We are impressed. Everything we catch is less than 6 inches long!

Today I discovered the importance of leaning away from jars of formalin. As we were picking out gravid females at Rabbit Slough, a drop of the stuff splashed up in my eye and I wound up doing my greatest impression of Cry Me A River. And of course i was wearing contacts and didn’t have my glasses with me. Which meant I spent the rest of the day seeing the forests, roads, and lakes as big smears of different colors.

So we only threw three lakes today. My bad! Lesson learned. But seriously. I was so clumsy in the unit this morning, I kept expecting something to go wrong. Hopefully it is now all out of my system. Woof.

– Rachel

 

Lauren counting stickleback at Rabbit Slough. Yes, it really is that close to the Parks Highway.

Lauren counting stickleback at Rabbit Slough. Yes, it really is that close to the Parks Highway.

 

P.S. from Lauren: I use my own formalin-in-the-eye story from the summer of ’06 at Long Lake (which came after our advisor, Dr. John Baker, told me about his own formalin-in-the-eye story at a lake in Alaska from years before) as a chemical safety warning when I bring people out to the field, but I guess Rachel wanted her own (albeit a third-generation) story. Seems fair. I wonder whom her story will fail to warn in the future.

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“Hanging tough, staying hungry…”

Despite my jet lag (Lauren is lucky; she lives in Washington state so the plane ride was only a three hour hop north and a one hour time change for her), we managed to get a normal day’s work in today. Stocked up on groceries in the morning – made easier by the fact that for the first few weeks it will only be the two of us – tagged fifty of our minnow traps in the early afternoon, and still got out to trap four lakes.

And we knew Alaska had been waiting for us when Eye of the Tiger came on the radio just as we were pulling out onto Hollywood Drive to head to Whale Lake. (Remember Whale Lake? This was the site of one very crazy conclusion to one of Team Alpha’s days last year.)

523 Whale hill lauren

To get to Whale, you have to cross a relatively busy road, hike straight up a very steep hill (Lauren w/ traps, modeling in the first picture), walk a ways down an ATV trail, and then walk across about 100 meters of muskeg. Whee.

To get to Whale, you have to cross a relatively busy road, hike straight up a very steep hill (Lauren w/ traps, modeling in the first picture), walk a ways down an ATV trail, and then walk across about 100 meters of muskeg. Whee.

523 Whale atv trail

 

Also saw a chicken at Rabbit Slough. Not a spruce chicken, mind you, but a I-think-I’m-not-at-the-farm-anymore chicken. Unfortunately it ran into the brush too fast for us to capture it on film. Boo.

Of course Lauren named the bright-white Subaru (Not For Long a.k.a. Noffer), and we found a small plastic yellow-and-brown-spotted dinosaur at Loberg Lake which became our new co-pilot. His name is Banana Split (as he is colored like the Jelly Belly jellybean of the same flavor), but we call him Nanner for short. Noffer and Nanner. Yes, we are very strange twenty-something year old biologists. No, we are not about to change any time soon. You know you love us.

 

Not For Long a.k.a. Noffer - right now he is the brightest white there can be, but he's going to live up to his name soon enough.

Not For Long a.k.a. Noffer – right now he is the brightest white there can be, but he’s going to live up to his name soon enough.

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It’s the Little Things, Really

Flights to Alaska require you to open the window shade.

Flights to Alaska require you to open the window shade.

 

I can’t express the glee I felt in not having to make a full day’s pilgrimage from the east coast to south central Alaska for this year’s round of collecting. In addition, the half-full plane ride which allowed me to have an entire row to myself is a treat well understood by anyone who has ever flown… well, anywhere. And then at the rental car counter I was asked the question I had been waiting for:

Avis agent: “Would you like a map of Anchorage?”
Me: “Hohoho—Oh, no. No, that won’t be necessary.”

I don’t think that this quite makes me a Local—although I do pretend. All you have to do is give a nod and a wave to other drivers when you’re on dirt roads going less than 30 mph. Above 30 mph and you’re some strange out-of-towner, but with the right speed and timing this move elicits a quick, knowing smile of recognition between locals. Don’t tell them that I know their secret; I like pretending.

The drive from the airport across town to the University of Alaska-Anchorage completed the welcoming ceremony. Anchorage is a city in shape and structure—there’s a downtown, residential neighborhoods, and shopping districts—but it’s small enough that one can take pride in the whole of the quaint little town nestled up against the Cook Inlet with the Chugiak Mountains as a backdrop of watchful guardians.

An interesting sign in Anchorage. Holes for sale?

An interesting sign in Anchorage. Holes for sale?

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North to Alaska: Take Two!

It was raining in Houston. The smell of wet pavement and warm humidity clogged the walkway to my seven hour Continental flight to Anchorage. Excited Texans bound for cruises and students bound for summer adventures in the wilderness pressed in around me and my duffel bag, talking animatedly. I glanced at my watch. So far I was only enduring a one hour time difference from the east coast, but I knew it was about to get worse.

But what was another seven hours flying (in addition to the three and a half it took me to get from Baltimore to Houston, and the other one it took for me to get from where I live in northern Virginia to Baltimore’s airport – oy vey!) when Alaska was waiting at the end of the ride? There were tiny fish in lakes waiting to be captured! Mountains waiting to be photographed! Moose waiting to walk across the road in front of me! And getting one more taste of the boysenberry ice cream at Little Millers on the side of the Parks Highway was pretty good incentive too.

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My first sight of Denali in June 2008. That’s definitely worth coming back for.

When I got off the plane in Anchorage, I was greeted by the familiar sight of stuffed bighorn sheep and grizzly bears mounted on the walls of the north terminal. Ah. Alaska. Lauren pulled up in our rented Subaru Forester at almost the same moment I yanked my giant suitcase off the baggage carousel. Perfect, almost karmic timing. As usual. (Lauren is the best.) A few minutes later and we were cruising through Anchorage. I relaxed into the passenger seat and drank in the mountainous horizon and the hazy not-quite-twilight of nine o’clock at night in south central Alaska.

My second Stickleback Summer. I have no doubts it will be as good as the first.

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Animal Behavior Gives Us Grief

Back in Massachusetts at Clark University…

The trials continue – both literally and figuratively! John and Susan realized the other day that if anything were to happen to Dianne (Dianne Suggs, one of our PhD students) and she was unable to run the testing on the lab’s male stickleback, that we would be short one essential lab process. These tests show how the males respond to gravid females and foraging groups at the time of reproduction.

To wit – John gave Anna, Jeff, and Meghan the Very Important task of learning how to test male stickleback. My commission in this instance was to write down every step for testing males in exquisite detail for posterity, and to learn the basics of the process myself so that I am able to help in the event that I am needed. (Truly, I am becoming a universal assistant in the stickleback lab. Go fish!)

Yesterday we took it upon ourselves to learn the setup for these tests. It’s quite complicated in that we test six males at the same time all in separate tanks and each tank must have two computer monitors on either end of it so that the researcher can show the male video of both the very pleasing gravid females and more sinister foraging groups. All of these males must be placed in the tanks during a time convenient for them to make a nest. Wires run across the floor in a dizzying array of electricity – spilling any tank water in here is not a smart idea! Cameras must be hooked to power sources, monitors must be hooked to computers, computers must be hooked to other monitors… It all gets quite confusing and we spent the better part of two hours figuring it all out yesterday, hooking together splitters, trying not to plug too many power strips into other power strips… etc.

Today we are still missing equipment. Each male’s tank should have two cameras in front of it to record the male during the trial. One camera records the entire trial to give us a good view of the set of behavior exhibited by the male; the other is placed directly in front of a color card in the tank by the male’s nest that allows us to make color measurements. We are currently short a couple of tripods and repeated scouring of the bio building has shown us only the interior of several other labs where cameras and tripods are hard at use. [See, for example, Justin Golub’s experiments.]

As if running all over the building looking for cameras and tripods wasn’t enough, our right computer monitor that controls the right monitors being shown to the six male fish is acting up and even our local lab techies can’t seem to figure it out. So far, it’s been an hour since we were supposed to begin trials and things aren’t looking much brighter. I suppose it’s one thing when you have trouble with your computer at the office, but when some technology you are supposed to be using in lieu with essential scientific trials doesn’t work, things are so beyond frustrating…

After an hour or two we fixed the right computer monitors, decided to borrow a couple of tripods from the female testing area, and … went to lunch. Cause fiddling with reluctant technology and equipment is hard work, doncha know.

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Just Call Us “Team Discovery”

Lauren and I left late Tuesday afternoon (Moody Blues, anyone?) for a five day camping trip needed to trap in the Willow and Talkeetna areas of the Mat-Su. Most of the rest of the day passed in a blur of driving, but luckily, we managed to find the last gas station whose price range was still below $4.29 on our way out of town. We got an amazing campsite at South Rolly where we could throw our traps about a ten seconds walk from our campfire to the lakeshore, and had a quiet night of chili for dinner and much guitar playing from Lauren.

Wednesday we discovered the joy of not having a chain grocery store to shop at. We were a bit disappointed in most of our catches (it perhaps being just the wrong time to catch shoaling stickleback) but were later gratified when we caught over a thousand fish at Willow Lake in a little under three hours. At Boot Lake, we were entertained by the rising of a loon about ten feet off the shore from where we stood (without cameras, of course), and then ended our day with an extraordinarily successful hike through the untamed wilderness using only a compass to get to Heins Pond, a lake Lauren trapped as a collection for the lab for the first ever just last year.

Thursday morning, we broke camp at South Rolly and went to pick up our traps at Heins Pond. After our fifteen minute hike back through the woods with fish and traps in tow, we drove not even a quarter mile down the road to find a black bear down the pickup truck stopped in front of us! Strange to remember that every time we are out in the field we are completely surrounded by such wildlife. We then diverged from the Parks Highway for what seems like the first time in my life (to get anywhere in Mat-Su you take the Glenn Highway which turns into the Parks Highway) and took the Talkeetna Spur up to – where else? – Talkeetna. Here we found the Best Campsite Ever overlooking the river, and were incredibly successful trapping all of lakes we needed to down to figuring out that what we’ve been calling East Sunshine is actually North Sunshine and finding a reliable contact at Question Lake. We spent the evening playing cards and watching the clouds burn off the horizon before driving out to the scenic lookout on the highway where Lauren saw Denali (a.k.a. Mt. McKinley) for the first time in her three years of coming up here to Alaska. We were so enthralled that we sat there for another hour watching the sunset behind the mountain.

Friday we pulled about a TON of stickleback from Question Lake and ate lunch looking at Denali again (neither of us really got tired of sitting at that scenic spot). We trapped X and Y Lakes and discovered that not even the locals can remember which is which as there are conflicting maps on either end of the trail leading into X (or is it Y?) Lake. But Lauren noticed something that led to a bit of knowledge that when relayed may or may not make Matt have a meltdown. The maps both refer to a third lake, obviously called Z Lake, in between Y (or is it X?) Lake and Tigger Lake. “Huh,” said Lauren. “That’s funny. Trouble Lake is definitely in between X and Tigger, but I don’t see it on here. I wonder if it’s too small to list… but no, it’s only a little smaller than Tigger. Oh look, a maintained trail leads out to Z Lake! Let’s go check it out.” Check it out we did and come to find that Z Lake is indeed the same Trouble Lake that we have been trapping by hiking through trail-less woods full of devil’s club and other nasty vegetation.

…Alaska is so much FUN.

Saturday we discovered some yellow and green stickleback in Tigger Lake (this was apparently destined to be a camping trip chock full of discoveries and nothing else) and managed to pack up some live ones for observation back in the unit. Returned home to Anchorage where Matt has now been replaced by Susan. She’s here to help Kat out with her behavior project (a rather interesting study of sneaking male stickleback). Dinner conversations have suddenly become rather more informative than usual! But it’s an incredible thing to have her here living and working with us in the field – not to mention taking part in our Alaskan antics. We didn’t even have to tell her the van was named Pewter.

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The View From Here

This weekend I went camping on the Kenai peninsula for four days with Lauren and Matt. We made collections and (the reason Matt and I went with Lauren) we made crosses in the field of a few populations down in the Kenai. There were gorgeous lookouts on the way up, so we stopped often to take pictures between lakes.

Here's one of my favorite pictures I took on the trip, a view of Beluga Slough with the ocean and mountains in the background.

Here’s one of my favorite pictures I took on the trip, a view of Beluga Slough with the ocean and mountains in the background.

Here's Lauren at one of these viewpoints. This photo looks like an ad for Clark!

Here’s Lauren at one of these viewpoints. This photo looks like an ad for Clark!

This is Watson Lake, which we stopped at to trap as we drove down the peninsula. It rained every morning, but we did get one gorgeous day, and this is evidence that there was some sunshine on the trip!

This is Watson Lake, which we stopped at to trap as we drove down the peninsula. It rained every morning, but we did get one gorgeous day, and this is evidence that there was some sunshine on the trip!

Here's a picture of Matt and Lauren as we were actually making the crosses on a picnic table at our campsite on Anchor Point. We made them shockingly fast, probably because we were highly motivated by the fact that it was 44 degrees out! By the time we were done we could barely move our hands and had to go sit in the car with the heat on so our hands would stop hurting.

Here’s a picture of Matt and Lauren as we were actually making the crosses on a picnic table at our campsite on Anchor Point. We made them shockingly fast, probably because we were highly motivated by the fact that it was 44 degrees out! By the time we were done we could barely move our hands and had to go sit in the car with the heat on so our hands would stop hurting.

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Camping by the Numbers

Lauren, Anna and I spent 4 days camping on the Kenai Peninsula. Four bears, a golden eagle, 29 crosses (performed on a picnic table in high winds and 46-degree temperatures), a dozen or so trapping sites, hundreds of beautiful mountains, and one spectacular sunset later and we were back in Anchorage, ready to hit the showers. A good time had by all.

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The. Best. Day. Ever.

Matt is off with the water quality girls today to Talkeetna. It’s a long drive and Jana and Sophie need to complete the water quality on at least three lakes while they’re up there. Matt is going because he needs some live fish from Trouble Lake which is, as the name suggests, rather difficult to get into and out of.

Meanwhile, the four of us remaining (Lauren, Anna, Jeff, and me) got up early so that we could begin the Best Day Ever. Anna and Jeff brought me to the lab and taught me how to “make babies.” This involves getting a lot of fish ready to reproduce from the holding tanks in the mosquito-ridden year, bringing them across the street to the into lab where we work, anesthetizing them, then swirling female’s eggs and male’s testes together in Petri dishes full of embryo medium. (The more technical way of saying this is that they taught me how to make “crosses” between stickleback.)

After this, we all piled into Sean Connery, and set off for adventure. I learned the real words to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” (Hold me closer, Tony Danza…), climbed a really big butt – er, BUTTE, solved an earthquake and watched another hit right next to where Matt and the girls were in Talkeetna, and generally had fun running around the backwoods of Alaska with my friends.

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The last story of the best day ever is about the Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer. Lauren saw it on a map and thought we should visit because she lives in Washington state and thought it’d be neat to have one of the tsunami warning stickers that she sees all over the Puget Sound. So we found the building and dropped in for awhile. The people who worked there weren’t giving tours that day, but once they found out we were a bunch of student biologists they gave us an incredible hour-long informal tour that included us getting to use their Early Bird Warning System to “solve” an earthquake! And while we were standing there, a whole bunch of alarms went off and we saw an earthquake happen in Talkeetna where Matt and Sophie and Jana were. (It was only a 2 point something so they didn’t even feel it, but still!) They were also fascinated by what we do and came out to the car with us to see the fish and talk to us some more. It was a pretty extraordinary experience and not one any of us is likely to forget soon.

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North of Anchorage

Jana, Sophie and I went up about 3 hours north of Anchorage to take water quality samples from several lakes, as well as to trap fish at Trouble Lake. Trouble is a bit of trouble to get to, but reaching the lovely, secluded lake after 1,000 feet of thorns and dense forest makes the scratches and bruises well worth the effort. It’s also always a pleasure to chat with the kind folks who let us access the lake via their property. I’ve posted a picture of Jana and Sophie working hard at Tigger Lake, and while they were taking a plankton tow, I was shooting some pictures of courting male stickleback from shore.

 

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View from a Canoe

Jana, hard at work.

Jana, hard at work.

Things all get switched around from time to time. It’s nice for me, not being hooked into any one specific project because apparently I will get to experience them all!

The water quality team has been having some trouble with getting the U.S.S. Clifford back onto Pewter all by their lonesome so we’ve rearranged teams somewhat. Because Matt doesn’t always need both Anna and Jeff in the lab with him during the day, one of them gets hooked up with trapping or water quality in order to have the right number of people to get things done.

This means for the past two days I’ve been a temporary member of Bravo team. Do they have a nice job or what! Water quality, my foot, they just want to do this so they can paddle around all the gorgeous lakes here.

Rachel and Sophie

Rachel and Sophie

 

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I Went to Alaska and I Came Back Weird

Lauren, in the latest Alaskan fashion

Lauren, in the latest Alaskan fashion

So the fearsome foursome is back together for a day or two using Pewter to tote traps and one big red canoe about the Mat-Su. The specific things we did this day hardly matter. At this point, we are used to our long work days, and it’s the little things that make them distinct. On this slightly cloudy, threatening-but-not-quite-raining day in June a few interesting things happened. We almost hit a moose that came running out of the bushes on the side of the road at the van. Lauren’s lightning reflexes saved both van and moose, and the animal looked even more scared than we were as it trotted back into the forest.

Second, we got to hear a few choice quotes from Ms. Jana Loux-Turner. To wit: “It’s not as lake-y as the other lakes,” and “I just kissed the motor.” Who knows what either of these was really supposed to mean. It’s Alaska. You go with it. Lauren had a nice quote as well — about some of the experiences we’ve had losing things at the lakes around here. “Lynda stole our temperature probe and Irene ate a trap. Those thieving ladies of the Mat-Su!” In a brief psychological retrospective (this is Clark after all), it behooves me to note that the week we spent camping on the Kenai Peninsula together at the beginning of this trip went a long, long way toward bonding us all as friends. This explains things like A-lab-skan and our penchant for naming inanimate (and animate for that matter) objects. Stickleback summer in Alaska quickly becomes all about the inside jokes and the fast friendships. Days are spent working, of course, but it’s rarely work to any of us. And nights are spent sitting around the table long after dinner, discussing the crazy things that happened that day or playing cards or harmonizing with Matt and Lauren on the guitar. I’m not sure what I expected when I flew out here, but the easy-going attitude and calm efficiency of this “working vacation” is just what the doctor ordered.

– Rachel

 

Jana, also in the latest Alaskan fashion

Jana, also in the latest Alaskan fashion

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Pup Lake and Yard Dogs

Matt turns 13 ... er, 31!

Matt turns 13 … er, 31!

It’s Matt’s birthday! The “death” of June. It never gets old.

Matt’s friend, Scott Christy, took him and Jeff up in a float plane today. Meanwhile, Lauren and Anna gave me a day off to write — so while they headed out to the field, I took a brief trip to downtown Anchorage with Sophie and Jana to do some souvenir shopping.

They then headed off to do their water quality sampling for the day. The plan was to do two lakes today — Stepan Lake being the first. However, when we trapped Stepan a few days ago, we walked in over muskeg. It being rather difficult to carry a canoe between two people over water-logged marsh, Bravo Team set out looking for the public access. They ended up at the end of a dirt road where a house stood overlooking a lake. There were dogs outside so they bravely got out and went to knock on the door. The man who answered kindly informed them that they had ended up at Big Beaver Lake and let them come into his incredibly nice house to look for the public access to Stepan on Google Earth. So they go off looking… End up at Pup Lake which they knew was wrong. Pulled into a driveway that looked oddly familiar — it was a friend’s house on Lazy Lake. Wrong again! Turned around and saw a side road they hadn’t tried, so down it they went. There was a house at the end of this road with a black dog in the yard. This detail had been in Susan’s description of where the public access to Stepan was so they got out to ask the owner if this was indeed the place. And that was how they met “Mrs. Key, but call me Dee.” An incredible character study ensued that would be impossible to relate through mere words on a computer screen because it involves a lot of relevant body language. And that would be why Bravo Team only got through one lake today.

– Rachel

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Friends In High Places

Scott Christy, a local pilot (and retired geologist, among other things) is a great friend to our lab, and is kind enough each summer to take us in search of stickleback in hard-to-reach places in his float plane. Today he took Jeff and me to several lakes around the Cook Inlet in search of what may prove to be some interesting stickleback populations. Our best catch came at an unnamed lake just west of the Little Susitna River. We dubbed it “Birthday Lake” on account of it being my birthday. Scott’s not only a great pilot, but also a fantastic naturalist and storyteller, so spending the day flying with Scott was a great way to spend my 25th (wink, wink) birthday. You can see from the pictures that Jeff enjoyed himself as well. There’s also a nice shot of the Little Susitna River from the air.

– Matt

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One Long Day

Jana and Sophie at the end of a plankton tow on Bruce Lake

Jana and Sophie at the end of a plankton tow on Bruce Lake

What a day. Some of the days on the Kenai were long, but this day may have taken that cake for Lauren and me. I suppose it’s partially our fault for starting later than normal due to running errands, etc. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We begin at the beginning. After a long night of playing cards and chilling out in the main unit, we took our time getting going in the morning, lolling about the kitchen while we ate our cereal and packed our lunches for the day. Today, Matt, Anna, and Jeff were only working in the lab a few blocks away from the main unit, so the fearsome “deathsome” effectively had two cars at their disposal. Jana and Sophie were taking the beloved Pewter out for the day, looking forward to a productive day of testing four lakes. Lauren and I were to gain control of the Forester, who quickly became known as “Sean Connery” due to the actor being in a movie called “Finding Forrester.” We divided our equipment, and each headed our separate ways.

I heard at dinner tonight that Jana and Sophie had an interesting time of it. Their potential four lakes turned into two perfectly tested lakes. The weather had turned somewhat stormy and windy for them at the end of the second lake so they decided to lay off and call it quits before getting drenched. Not counting the hour-long nap they took in the middle of the day! Since it was just the two of them for the first time, they had to get used to taking the canoe off and putting it back on pewter’s roof rack without additional muscle support. And while reaching for something in the van, Sophie twisted her shoulder and didn’t want to risk further injuring it for awhile, so the two of them decided to rest for a few minutes while parked at the public access to Rocky Lake. An hour later…

Also heard that Matt, Anna, and Jeff had an uneventful day in the lab, making crosses and being generally productive.

Lauren and I, on the other hand, had a very eventful day indeed. When we left the unit in the morning, we headed over to the lab to get Matt’s keys so we could get into his room and get hold of the power inverter for the car so I could possibly plug my laptop in and write while we drove. We picked him up because he’d also managed to forget his own charger. The power inverter didn’t work, but at least Matt got his charger. Next, we took a drive over to Frank von Hippel’s lab to pick up the hard drive Lauren’s father mailed to her while we were all still out on the Kenai. No dice. So we drove off to find a gas station (which still hurts, even though we are used to the above-four-dollars-a-gallon prices)

No wonder $20.00 won’t even get us 5 gallons of gas – this is the “death” pump!

No wonder $20.00 won’t even get us 5 gallons of gas – this is the “death” pump!

 

One of the two beautiful swans at Beverly Lake.

One of the two beautiful swans at Beverly Lake.

Zoo store to replace the temperature probe I managed to lose at Lynda Lake about a week ago. Ran over to the Kaladi Brothers coffee shop and picked up a new coffee mug for Rich King to replace one he’d lost. Lauren is an excellent friend. Drove off to the Beverly Lake area and picked up all the traps thrown on the previous day at Kalmbach, Bruce, Cloudy, and Seymour Lakes. We left our tenth trap next to the water at Bruce Lake and had to walk all the way back down the trail to get it back again. Also, come to find out that the man at Seymour Lake who told us we’d better be Republicans or he wouldn’t let us trap on his property is also a bear hunter. He was loading up his float plane with equipment as we gladly took our leave. There was another errand run to Fred Meyer to pick up supplies for a huge map of the Mat-Su that Lauren is making for us to be better organized in our trapping plans. After this, we drove off looking for Spring Creek which we found easily enough. Also easy to trap, but incredibly buggy. We were happy to jump back in the car and crank the A/C.

Lauren gets the GPS coordinates at Kalmbach Lake.

Lauren gets the GPS coordinates at Kalmbach Lake.

Headed over to Walby Lake to get GPS coordinates we’d managed to forget not one, but two trips in a row. And managed to find some very nice people off Trunk Road who let us trap off their property at Wasilla Creek. Three kids. All talkative. And a very large, friendly dog who was content enough to follow us all over the yard while we looked for likely places to catch fish. Run to the storage unit to get more traps for Matt. Some of our traps are in need of repair though, so quick change of plans! No trapping at Lucille Creek today, we’d save those traps for Matt. Instead, we ran off down the road to drop our last traps at Knik Lake and then Goose Creek (this was our creek dropping day, if one couldn’t tell). Took a lovely ride down Burma Road which is very long and hilly and entirely made of dirt. Roller coaster ride of a road. It was great fun. Lots of trees chopped down on the roadside, however, where last year there was forest. We speculated on this for some time, and think maybe it’s because the spruce trees are sick and dying. Not sure. Something to keep an eye out for. Burma Road led us to our final stop of the day. Yesterday, Matt, Anna, and Jeff dropped twenty traps at Whale Lake in order to pull a live collection of juveniles today for behavior testing, as well as a collection of about 300 other fish for Mike Bell, another stickleback researcher spending the summer on UAA campus.

Whale Lake is an adventure just to get to. You park across the highway, hike straight up the hill of an ATV trail, and then walk across quite a stretch of muskeg. Waders required! At this point of the day, the storm clouds that chased Jana and Sophie away were threatening Whale. Lauren and I steeled ourselves, grabbed a cooler and a jar for the fish, and made the hike in. Near the end of counting the fish for Mike Bell, it began to sprinkle. And we realized we had only pulled 19 of the 20 traps. We went scouting for the 20th (which Lauren found in a corner) and then contemplated how to pack twenty traps plus a cooler full of water and live fish back out from the lake. We didn’t want to make two trips, so I got the traps loaded on my shoulders and set off across the muskeg, Lauren attempting to tote the cooler behind me. This ended in me putting ten of the traps down halfway across the muskeg, walking ten out to the trail, then coming back for the others which Lauren and I split between us, held under one arm, and used the other to carry the cooler between us. Once at the trail, we added the other traps so that we each held ten, plus the cooler still between us. Those juvie fish went for a ride! We had to put everything down only twice because we are monsters made of steel. Team Alpha stands for awesome. Made it all the way back to the car, and got into Anchorage again around 10:30.

– Rachel

I get one foot out the door of the main unit and this is what I see! A moose outside North Hall.

I get one foot out the door of the main unit and this is what I see! A moose outside North Hall.


 
A perfect moose print in the mud.

A perfect moose print in the mud.


 

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Lassie, the Spruce Chicken

Really need to remember to put bug spray in the van! Lauren and I went to pick up our traps at Zero Lake today and nearly got eaten alive. We also got led down the trail by a spruce grouse for awhile. We were told by a local while camping at Hidden Lake that most people here call these spruce chickens — wanting to blend as much as possible, so do we. This particular spruce chicken soon earned the name Lassie as it would settle on the trail some ten yards in front of us, then startle up as we drew close and settle on the trail another ten yards away. This continued for so long that we began to ask it, “What’s the matter, Lassie? Timmy fell down the well? Show us the way, Lassie the Spruce Chicken!” Er … maybe you had to be there.

– Rachel

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Speaking “A-lab-skan”

Late last night, the other half of our lab group flew in. They are all here to mainly work in UAA’s lab, using fish caught in the area. Matt Wund is the lab’s postdoctoral research fellow. His work is based around studying how different populations react to the selective pressures of new environments. Anna Mazarella, a junior biology and studio art major, is here to not only help out in the lab, but to take as many pictures as possible. Jeff is a junior psychology major and joins Sophie and me as a rookie to Alaska. His first few weeks, he’ll be working in the lab with Matt and Anna, but eventually he’ll be working with Kat Shaw, a doctoral student at the University of Connecticut who graduated from Clark with her fifth-year Master’s in 2005.

The four of us had to explain a few things to our new counterparts: we have developed our own peculiar language in the two weeks we’ve been up here. Lauren calls it “A-lab-skan.” For example, the night we got back into Anchorage we had some fortune cookies with our dinner and one of the lottery numbers on the back of someone’s fortune was 4. Lauren mentioned that it was mildly amusing because 4 is an unlucky number in Japanese culture, and I remarked that I had heard that was because the word for the number 4 was very close to the pronunciation of the word for “death.” Well, this was hilarious to us at the time. Who designs a language system where you count “one, two, three, death?” And ever since we do not say “four” anymore; we say “death.” So we became a “fearsome deathsome” with “death” chairs around our kitchen table… etc. That’s right. You can never take us too seriously up here.

Also decided to label ourselves using the military phonetic alphabet due to the street names surrounding Wolf and Kings Lakes, which are all named Echo, Sierra, Tango, and so on. Lauren and I are Alpha Team — making her Alpha Leader (Alpha One) and me Alpha Two. Jana and Sophie are Bravo Team — Jana being Bravo Leader and Sophie, Bravo Two. And because the other three are not in the field, we emphasized their difference by passing over Charlie and labeling them Delta Team. Matt is Delta Leader, Anna, Delta Two, and Jeff, Delta Three. This has led to some very interesting phone conversations. Especially because we spelled people’s names out using said alphabet and thought it was hilarious that Matt became “Mike Alpha Tango Tango.” Which quickly led to us calling him Captain Tango Tango.

Maybe you all didn’t need to know that. Poor Matt.

– Rachel

 

Other examples of the fun things the lab gets up to – sticklecookies! Here we see many nuptial-colored males courting a gravid female.

Other examples of the fun things the lab gets up to – sticklecookies! Here we see many nuptial-colored males courting a gravid female.

 

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News from the Laboratory

rachelChockFifth-year master’s student Rachel Chock successfully defended her thesis titled “Re-emergence of ancestral plasticity and the loss of a rare limnetic phenotype in an Alaskan population of threespine stickleback,” and walked in commencement ceremonies May 18.

Rachel studied the effects of human-induced environmental change on the behavior of a unique population of stickleback in Lynne Lake, Alaska.

After graduation she will be spending part of the summer doing fieldwork with pronghorn in Montana and the rest working at Lake George in New York helping to remove invasive milfoil. In the next year she is planning to spend time traveling and working in Australia and Southeast Asia, and wants to continue to be involved with conservation and animal behavior. Read more about Rachel

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News from the Laboratory

justinGolub_waterPhD student Justin Golub has won two prestigious awards to support his work with Susan Foster and John Baker.

One award was $1,500 from the American Museum of Natural History Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Grant. The AMNH Roosevelt grant is designed to aid graduate research on the natural history and conservation of North American fauna.

The second award was $1,000 from the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists Raney Fund. Set up in honor of Edward C. Raney, the award is designed to aid in graduate research in ichthyology (fish studies).

Both awards will support Justin’s summer research on embryonic learning in threespine stickleback. Read more about Justin

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News from the Laboratory

Prof. Susan Foster has been appointed to the newly established Warren Litsky Endowed Chair in Biology. This chair is established through a bequest gift from the estate of Warren Litsky, who graduated from Clark University in 1945. Susan joined the Clark University faculty in 1995. She was appointed chair of the department in 2005 and promoted to full professor in 2006. She is an evolutionary biologist and her research on stickleback fish is currently funded by a major grant from the National Science Foundation.

Her funded research has created wonderful opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to work in her laboratory here in Worcester as well as in the field in Alaska. Susan is a major contributor to the teaching program in biology and the new environmental science major. She also was a leader in the university’s successful Keck grant proposal to redesign biology courses around an inquiry-based pedagogy. Currently she serves the university as chair of the faculty Planning and Budget Review Committee. Read more about Susan

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On Rabbits and Moose (Okay, Just One of Each..)

Here are some Alaskan pics I’ve taken so far. The top photo shows Anna and Jeff at Rabbit Slough. We saw the moose, 2nd photo below, at Whale Lake. He regarded us for a few minutes, and then plopped down to relax.

– Matt Wund

 

rabbitSlough

 

moose

 

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Blame It On the Rain

The weather treated us surprisingly well when we were down on the Kenai. It was cold in the mornings and at night, but for the most part we had sunshine.

Today it rained. All day. Not hard or anything, but enough to make life interesting.

Our first day in the Mat-Su was spent in a new car. Poor Pewter’s “maintenance required” light came on, so we took him back to the car rental and got a Highlander for the weekend. Unfortunately, this car had no roof rack, so Jana and Sophie had to leave the canoe behind for awhile. But that meant that we got to trap incredibly efficiently for a few days. Today we experienced the extreme bugginess of Irene Lake and the interesting trek via ATV trail and muskeg to Whale Lake.

– Rachel

A moose skull seen on the trail leading into Whale Lake.

A moose skull seen on the trail leading into Whale Lake.

 

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Homeward Bound

So, yesterday we made some rune stones to help us make decisions. For example, the decision of who showered first when we got to our unit.

I won that one.

After pulling all our traps from the day previous, we headed home to Anchorage. We rolled into town around 9pm after a slightly harrowing ride on the highway due to high winds. Pewter handles well for a minivan, but he becomes a high profile vehicle in the wind with the U.S.S. Clifford tied on top. Tired, but excited to sleep in real beds, we got some dinner and the keys to our unit on the UAA campus.

Jana and Sophie batten down the hatches.

Jana and Sophie batten down the hatches.

Showering for the first time in seven days was GREAT.

Our unit is fantastic; there are four single bedrooms and a very nice galley kitchen. This will be the main unit, so Jana, Sophie and I will move out into the second unit a week from now when our other lab members arrive. For now though, we have another week to enjoy being a fearsome foursome. And tomorrow we get to settle into our normal commute out to the Matanuska-Susitna area (also known as the Mat-Su). All is well with the world.

– Rachel

 

Lauren in the unit

Lauren measuring the softness of the carpet in our unit.

 

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The Shish-Kablog

This is our last night of camping. The UAA residence halls open tomorrow, so we’ll be traveling back to Anchorage and moving into our main unit tomorrow night.

Met some people today at Encelewski Lake who know Rich King! It is a small world, and very satisfying to know that the locals almost always remember the “stickleback people.” We make an impression.

eaglebowTraveled down to the tip of the Kenai Peninsula today and threw some traps in Deep Creek and Anchor River, which require treks through salt marsh to get to. The beach was relatively unoccupied today, but we’ve been seeing the beginning of the Memorial Day campers and RVers. I don’t blame them for taking advantage of the time while they have it; despite the still chilly air, the ocean is gorgeous with the mountains as a backdrop and the sky yawns wide here, blue and inviting.

Took a brief trip down to the Homer Spit (“Spit Happens!” or “A quaint little drinking town with a fishing problem.”) for a souvenir run. Bought postcards and gifts for the poor people back home who are missing all of this.

Halfway through our drive off the spit to our next trapping site at Mud Bay, we spied a bald eagle. We’d been seeing eagles ever since we moved farther south, but this one was sitting on a signpost, just chilling. We drove right up to it without it ruffling a feather. Quietly dubbed him “Ebert” and went to drive away after taking about twenty pictures each. And then we spotted Ebert’s cousin not fifty yards down the road! More pictures. The wildlife and its proximity to human life up here is fairly mind-blowing.

We made our last night camping one for the books. Made an awesome campfire, sang all the camp songs we knew, cooked up some mouth-watering kabobs (and hot-dog-a-bobs), and rounded it out with some roasted marshmallows.

– Rachel

 

kablog

 

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On the Road Again

As the title clearly states, another day of driving. Nothing terribly exciting until the end of the day when we left our Hidden Lake campsite and moved down to Ninilchik in order to trap farther south.

– Rachel

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The Midnight Mud Attack of 2008!

Speaking of Skilak Road … We had quite the eventful night. After throwing all of our traps and picking up the water quality duo from their last lake, the four of us spent some time in the Soldotna McDonald’s charging our cell phones and the ATV battery we bought to use with the trolling motor on the canoe. (This was a fun four hours in which we sat in the back of the restaurant charging our equipment, using the wifi from the Safeway across the parking lot, and eating Subway sandwiches for dinner.) It had already been a long day, and Lauren and I still had twenty traps to throw back at Hidden Lake near our campsite. After seeing some of our first moose on the slowly darkening ride home from Soldotna (and what Lauren and Jana suppose was a great-horned owl in a tree off the side of the road), the three of us who weren’t driving drifted off to sleep. Lauren took it well, but Skilak Road is an adventure by itself even in the light. Nineteen miles long, it is entirely dirt and gravel – very fun in a minivan in the middle of May when things have been muddy and the vehicles with four-wheel drive who have been using it create large ditches down the middle and sides of their road by taking the mud puddles at good speed. Pewter takes these areas slowly and carefully, and Lauren had gotten through every bad patch just fine. Until…

mudThe front left wheel slipped off a ridge of hard-packed mud that Lauren had been carefully navigating and fell down into a small ditch of mud. The rest of us woke up to see the sign for our campsite maybe fifty yards down the road. Sweet. So we got out to assess the situation. Lauren had her window rolled down to talk to us while we figured things out — so when we went to push and she went to accelerate… Well. Let us just say that Pewter and Lauren both were very artfully decorated with the plume of mud that fountained into the air as the front wheel escaped.

Made it back to Hidden by 12:45, grabbed our twenty traps, and threw them before heading off to bed. Nothing brings a good field researcher down!

Today, we made a friend at Longmere Lake, a place Lauren has tried and failed to trap for the past two years. Very nice people, but talkative! Alaskans are great for conversation. They will tell you their life’s story and expect yours in return. Also very curious about what we do — but the questions are fantastic. Especially when we meet kids. They ask the most random, pointed questions about what we’re doing. It’s a great deal of fun.

– Rachel

 

 

 

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Hazy Shade of Winter

Water quality girls still figuring things out. Today, I learned how to count and preserve fish in the field. It’s so crazy and amazing to actually see this fish in the wild after studying them for years in a classroom. It’s very early in the season; we’ve talked to a few locals who’ve told us that most of the lakes around here only just iced out a few weeks ago. Apparently, it was an unusual winter weather-wise. We heard that Anchorage had a few feet of snow only two weeks before we arrived!

And yet … the sun was beating down on us enough today that Lauren and I actually turned on the air conditioning in Pewter for the time we spent riding between lakes. Oh, the humanity.

Also! Saw a black bear today while driving down Skilak Road. It stood on the side of the road for a moment, nonchalantly watching us as we exclaimed and scrambled for the video camera before trotting off into the woods again.

– Rachel

 

Lauren, left, and Rachel take a moment

Lauren, left, and Rachel take a moment

 

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On Trapping Lakes and Flagging Tapes

First day! Lauren taught me how to set traps in about two minutes while standing on the muskeg at Watson Lake. Muskeg is great stuff; generally, one can refer to it as bogland or marsh. It consists of sphagnum moss and other vegetation in various states of decomposition and is home to all sorts of interesting plants — like berry bushes (cranberry, blueberry, cloudberry, crowberry), carnivorous pitcher plants, wild calla lilies, and Labrador tea plants. Can one tell that we have been trying hard to identify every new plant and animal we stumble across out here?

Sophie works in the field

Sophie works in the field

Trapping the threespine stickleback sometimes requires the skills of a ninja warrior. In general, it is as easy as putting together a small minnow trap, throwing it out into the water, and tying it off to vegetation at the water’s edge. We usually throw about ten traps in a lake and leave them overnight before coming back the next day to count and preserve the fish we’ve caught. Where we trap at a lake is a matter that becomes more delicate. Some lakes do not have public accesses, or the public access is so well-traveled that we wouldn’t want to throw traps there because curious Alaskans and/or tourists might pull them up to check them out. Or worse, think we’re doing something wrong and remove our traps completely! Our ninja skills include finding isolated spots to throw traps, hiding our flagging tape and ropes from inquiring eyes, and making friends with nice homeowners who might let us throw traps off their property.

To throw a stickleback trap: tag them (with permit number, Lauren’s name and contact info, and a line indicating that the trap is for research purposes), flag them (with the same information), toss them out parallel to shore, tie the rope off to nearby vegetation and discreetly hide the flagging tape. Our waterproof notebook (rightly labeled “Collector’s Bible 2008 Part 1”) gets a sketch indicating where each trap is, air and water temperature, GPS coordinates, and directions to the lake if we don’t currently have them. All of this information, as well as the counts we get for fish collected the next day, later gets copied neatly into a notebook for future referencing available to anyone using the collections from 2008.

The water quality girls had their first run today. They managed to set up their canoe with necessary equipment, but unfortunately have forgotten the chlorophyll filter in the lab in Massachusetts! Lauren and Jana have attempted to “MacGyver” a replacement filter, but the sponge that was supposed to be the filter got damp and the sealant hasn’t properly sealed. No worries. John will send the real piece of equipment a.s.a.p. to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge for us to pick up on Tuesday.

– Rachel

 

Traps, field notebook, and a jar of preserved fish. What more could you need?

Traps, field notebook, and a jar of preserved fish. What more could you need?

 

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To the Kenai with a Keen Eye

I suspect that in the next couple of days, I am going to really appreciate that the grant money provided the four of us in these first two weeks was used to put us up in hotel for my first night’s sleep in Alaska. The trip here was exhausting, and it had just fallen fully dark when I got here around midnight (which was interesting by itself! It is strange to be in a plane headed north and the sky keeps getting lighter and lighter even as your body gets more and more tired). Met up with the other three girls who are here with me for the first two weeks.

Lauren and Jana in Alaska in 2007.

Lauren and Jana in Alaska in 2007.

Lauren Ackein, a fifth-year master’s student, is in charge of our little group for this trip. This is her third trip to Alaska being in charge of the field collections the lab makes every year. My presence here is being put to good use by helping Lauren with trapping efforts.

The other two members of our party are Jana Loux-Turner and Sophie Valena. Both are junior year biology majors like me (and all of our families are from New Hampshire, too!) and are here in Alaska to continue a project Jana participated in last summer in Alaska testing the water quality of the lakes where we trap stickleback. This is Sophie’s first trip to Alaska, and she’s here to help Jana with the water quality study as well as to think about a possible future project on land cover change in the area.

The morning of the 17th was spent showering and piling on the food at the hotel’s continental breakfast bar. We packed up our Toyota Sienna minivan — oh, funny story. We have a penchant for naming things here. When Lauren and Sophie went to pick up the van from the rental desk at the Anchorage airport, Lauren wanted to know if it was a white van so we could all call it “Vanna White.” No, said the lady at the desk. It’s pewter. And “Pewter” it has become. He was the only male included on our camping trip. So, we packed up Pewter, and went to the lab’s storage unit in Wasilla which is about forty minutes away from Anchorage. It’s a beautiful drive alongside mountains and rivers and forest.

After picking up all our equipment and the canoe (which is big and red and was promptly christened the U.S.S. Clifford) for the water quality girls to use for their plankton tows, we were finally on our way to the Kenai. The long drive was made amazing via the wild views out our windows: the Prince William Sound, more mountains (with more snow), cliffs and waterfalls. We had our eyes peeled for mountain goats, which Lauren has seen in the past, but we were fresh out of mountain goat luck this year. Maybe on the next trip down.

Drove into Soldotna to get food for dinner around 10:30. Set up our tents at a campsite on Hidden Lake. We were right on the shoreline, and as it finally fell dark we crawled into our sleeping bags to fend off the cold, ready for our first day of work in the morning.

 

Our beloved minivan, Pewter.

Our beloved minivan, Pewter.

 

 

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North to Alaska!

Scene: Dulles International Airport in the early afternoon of a rainy, spring day. The terminal is crowded with people chattering on their cell phones, eating sandwiches and drinking coffee. One girl sits, notebook in lap, smoothie in hand, writing and dreaming of a land they call “the last frontier.”

Traveling to Alaska for the summer was never a dream of mine, but when I heard I had the opportunity to go there for six weeks of my junior summer and participate in a genuine field research session, I leapt at the chance.Last semester, Susan Foster, my faculty adviser and one half of the husband-wife duo doing research on the threespine stickleback at Clark University, made my college career when she suggested that I unite my two primary passions in life (biology and writing) by writing an article about thenatural history and adaptive radiation of the stickleback — and that I could easily travel to Alaska with the lab group that goes every year in order to research my topic in a very hands-on way. So, here I am on my way to Anchorage using the Traina Scholarship I was awarded when I was accepted to Clark and NSF funding awarded to the lab. The feeling is mostly excitement. The new things to see and experience are almost beyond numbering; I cannot even imagine half of them. The plane ride is long and I’ll have plenty of time to contemplate the next few weeks while I glide through the clouds, but I think I’ll just use the time to sleep. It will be at least 4am when I finally touch ground in Alaska, after all!

– Rachel

 

sophie airport

Sophie anticipates the plane ride to Alaska.

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Coming Attractions (or … 4 Girls and a Van)

Coming soon: The tale of what it is like to camp for seven days on the Kenai Peninsula in late May, trapping fish and taking water quality samples daily. A harrowing experience of traveling in a van packed with equipment and four girls who haven’t showered for a week (oh my!). A tale chock full of wildlife infiltrating human civilization. Of glorious views, scenic campsites, late-night dinners around crackling campfires … and the satisfying and almost surreal ability to apply everything one has learned in a classroom or lab at school to a project that will have long-lasting effects on the academic landscape. It is a tale of contributing new knowledge. A tale of getting to know one’s study system up close and personal. A tale of summer in Alaska with the threespine stickleback.

– Rachel LaBranche

 

The Journey Begins: View from the van’s front seat on the way into Wasilla

The Journey Begins: View from the van’s front seat on the way into Wasilla

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Plankton Sampling in a Parking Lot…

On May 13, the day of the group photo and celebration of Rachel Chock’s successful defense, a dry run (literally) of the plankton sampling routine for Alaskan lakes was played out in the Maywood parking lot next to the Lasry Bioscience Building. This involved the movement of a canoe from John and Susan’s lawn in Petersham, to the parking lot – not a natural home for a canoe! There John taught Jana to (well, maybe not paddle a canoe) but to suspend plankton nets and a flow meter that would tell her how far she traveled in each run. They did not catch much plankton. With luck, the catch will be better in an Alaskan lake! As Lauren, Rachel L., Jana and Sophie leave on Thursday we should hear soon……

– Susan Foster

 

John and Jana’s dry run for plankton sampling in Maywood parking lot at Clark University.

John and Jana’s dry run for plankton sampling in Maywood parking lot at Clark University.

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Preparing For Adventure

Students in the Foster-Baker lab are packing for field work in British Columbia and Alaska. One post-doc, four grad students, and five undergrads are gearing up to perform field work on threespine stickleback and their lake environments from mid-May through early July. One team will work in the Cook Inlet region of Alaska, and the other will do research in the Vancouver Island and adjacent British Columbia mainland region. Studies will range from collections made to continue our conservation archive for selected lakes, water quality and plankton, behavior, and host-parasite relationships.

– John Baker

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News from the Laboratory

The NESCent working group, spearheaded by Dr. David Lahti at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and co-organized by Susan, has been encouraged to submit a review manuscript to Nature on the topic of Relaxed Selection and Trait Loss: Patterns and Processes. As David indicated in transmitting this information to the working group members, Devo Rocks!

Susan becomes coordinating editor for North American submissions to Ethology, a journal for which she has served as one of three North American editors for five years. She is looking forward to understanding the full range of North American submissions to the journal.

 

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News from the Laboratory

Susan traveled to North Carolina State University to present a seminar entitled: Evolution of a model system: The adaptive radiation of threespine stickleback that was hosted by the W.M. Keck Center for Behavioral Biology.  She had the opportunity to meet the very diverse and active group of faculty and students who comprise this group and had a wonderful visit.  Post-doctoral fellow Gissella Vasquez wrote a wonderful summary of the presentation and of Susan’s career in The Signala monthly newsletter for the W.M. Keck Center for Behavioral Biology.

Susan becomes one of 18 action editors for Animal Behaviour, and is looking forward to this new editorial challenge. Action editors handle manuscripts for review.  The journal is published by Elsevier for the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour and the Animal Behavior Society.  It was first published in the year Susan was born (which makes it way old and, of course, respectable …)

Shlomit Klopman becomes a Ph.D. student in the laboratory and FIVE long-term undergrads become fifth-year master’s students in our laboratory! These are Lauren Ackein, Rachel Chock, Katherine O’Brien, Jignasha Rana, and Karyn Robert. Umpteen undergraduates also become active in the laboratory and soon will be featured here.

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News from the Laboratory

nescentSusan attends a working group meeting at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent). The working group, entitled “Relaxed Selection and Trait Loss”, was organized by David Lahti, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Susan.

 

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News from the Laboratory

abs_logoA large laboratory contingent attended the Animal Behavior meeting in Burlington, Vermont. Susan, Justin and Matt presented papers. Rachel presented a poster with support from a Charles Henry Turner Award from the Animal Behavior Society. Katherine Shaw (visiting student scholar at Clark and Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut, Storrs) and Jignasha were both present at the meeting as well.

Most stickleback folk are back in the lab. The exception is Anna Mazzarella (‘09) who is attending the Stanford University Stickleback Molecular Genetics course the first two weeks of July. All of her costs while at Stanford were covered by NIH funding, and her travel costs were covered by Clark University. Anna describes the course as “awesome.” Anna at Stanford, right.

 

anna_stanford200

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News from the Laboratory

Part of the British Columbia field contingent (Susan, Justin, Karyn and Natasha and Rachel) travel to Alaska, Mickey returns to Santa Barbara, and Dianne, Brendan head back to Massachusetts. Anna and Jana join them. All return from Alaska later in June after a very long field season. Throughout, John, Katie and Craig hold up the fish rearing effort.

High on the excitement profile was a small plane flight David Critchlow (’08) took with pilot Scott Christy to explore lakes that had not yet been sampled for stickleback.

 

airplane

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News from the Laboratory

The Great Departure month. Susan, Brendan, Dianne, Karyn and Rachel fly to British Columbia where they are joined by Natasha Kelly, a graduate student at Yale University, and Mickey Rowe, a collaborator on vision/color research from the University of California Santa Barbara. Matt, David, Jignasha and Lauren head for Alaska.

Val Locker (’09) departs for Juneau Alaska, to participate in a National Science Foundation funded REU (research experiences for undergraduates) program studying those other vertebrates, sea birds.

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